Episode 193: #WriterDreamsComeTrue
|KJ||Jan 10, 2020|
She writes Emmy-winning television comedy, bestselling children’s books, plays, and sentences for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Is there nothing Jill Twiss can’t do?
Musical theater actress and stand-up comic Jill Twiss dreamed of writing for television but did not know how to break in to the world of late-night comedy shows. The stars aligned when a few supportive women called some chits on her behalf, and lo, she landed a spot in the writing room of the Emmy-award winning show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Her work on Last Week Tonight has earned her multiple Emmys, WGA and Peabody Awards, and led to a series of bestselling children’s books as well as the opportunity to write humorous “Can I have that word in a sentence, please?” hints for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
This week, Jill and Jess talk about how Jill got her start in television, her love of Vice President Mike Pence’s pet rabbit Marlon Bundo, how her children’s books came to be, their shared need for pressing deadlines, and Jill’s play-in-progress about the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.
Episode links and a transcript follow—but first, you know we dropped the Top Five Ways to Find the Right Agent to pitch into everyone’s inbox last Monday. What will our supporters find there this Monday? It’s SO FRESH WE DON’T EVEN KNOW. But if you become a supporter, you will. Support the podcast you love AND get weekly #WriterTopFives with actionable advice you can use for just $7 a month.
As always, this episode (and every episode) will appear for all subscribers in your usual podcast listening places, totally free as the #AmWriting Podcast has always been. This shownotes email is free, too, so please—forward it to a friend, and if you haven’t already, join our email list and be on top of it with the shownotes and a transcript every time there’s a new episode.
Want to share this one? Click here to share on Facebook, and here for an editable tweet.
LINKS FROM THE PODCAST
#AmReading (Watching, Listening)
Our guest for this episode is Jill Twiss.
The Marlon Bundo episode of Last Week Tonight (full episode):
Just the excerpt about A Day in The Life of Marlon Bundo with a clip of the animated all-star cast audiobook:
This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work DONE. Visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwritingfor details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.
If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.
The image in our podcast illustration is by Kate DeCarvalho.
The music in our podcast is by Max Cohen.
Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)
KJ: 00:01 Hello fellow writers. The beginning of the year is a great time to think about what you really want from your writing life and if one of the things that's filled you with joy in the past is time spent encouraging, editing, and helping another writer you might want to consider becoming a book coach yourself. Our sponsor, Author Accelerator provides book coaching to authors like me, but also needs and trains book coaches. And they'll be hosting a free book coaching summit in January for anyone who wants to learn more. If that's got your ears perked up, head to authoraccelerator.com/summit. Is it recording?
Jess: 00:39 Now it's recording.
KJ: 00:40 Yay.
Jess: 00:40 Go ahead.
KJ: 00:41 This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone and try to remember what I was supposed to be doing.
Jess: 00:45 Alright, let's start over.
KJ: 00:47 Awkward pause and I'm going to rustle some papers.
Jess: 00:50 Okay.
KJ: 00:50 Now one, two, three.
Jess: 00:58 Hey, I'm Jess Lahey and this is #AmWriting. Our podcast about writing all the things, the podcast about sitting down, getting the work done and often that work looks like pitches, looks like queries, looks like invoicing so that you can get paid for all that stuff. But really this is just the podcast about the nuts and bolts of being a writer.
Sarina: 01:22 I'm Sarina Bowen, when I do my writing it's about fiction and novels. I'm the author of 30-odd romance novels and my new one is called Heartland.
Jess: 01:32 And I'm Jess, again. And my work of writing is about mostly nonfiction and I'm in the process of writing a new book and in the process of editing it. But my first book is the Gift of Failure, How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. And we are missing KJ again today. She is still hockey tournament-ing. And we are going to have an interview today with someone really, really cool. But I wanted to catch you at the beginning of this, Sarina to tell you that you and our guest today have something in common.
Sarina: 02:01 We do, what?
Jess: 02:03 So a couple of years ago you sent us a text, KJ and myself, a text about the fact that someone had gotten a tattoo in your honor. And are we still at a couple of people, two people who have tattoos of your books?
Sarina: 02:18 I know of three...
Jess: 02:19 Three people. And what do they have on their bodies?
Sarina: 02:22 Well, the first one had the cover of Him.
Jess: 02:27 Okay. Him being one of the books that you have written.
Sarina: 02:31 Right. And then another one has a quote from The Year We Fell Down.
Jess: 02:35 Oh, that's cool. A quote, I love that.
Sarina: 02:38 And hers is in French because she helped me proofread the French edition. And then I have a lovely friend, Claudia, who has a tattoo of The True North titles.
Jess: 02:49 That's just so permanent. It's so permanent. I mean, number one, you gotta be a super fan to get a tattoo of. Well the other thing is you said that one of them has The True North novels, which means this is a tattoo that will expand over time, maybe.
Sarina: 03:05 Well, perhaps...
Jess: 03:11 What if you end up writing like 70 books in this series? It'll be like all the way up her arm or his arm.
Sarina: 03:16 Yeah, but I'll be dead from writing all those. So you know, we have bigger problems...But, so tell me about our guest.
Jess: 03:24 So our guest today is Jill Twiss and she is a writer on the show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. And she found someone who has a tattoo of a rabbit on them and that rabbit's name is Marlon Bundo. Do you know who Marlon Bundo is?
Sarina: 03:41 He's the bunny in her book.
Jess: 03:43 The bunny in her book. And we'll talk to her a little bit about that tattoo and what it was like to find out that she has landed a place of permanence on someone's body, which just to me, blows my mind. I can't even picture. It's just amazing.
Sarina: 03:57 You know what blows my mind?
Jess: 03:58 What's that?
Sarina: 03:59 If your first book in Amazon is a picture book with like 8 million reviews and went viral, like I'm so excited for this.
Jess: 04:09 I know, this is going to be great also because as you will find out when you listen to this interview, it's her first writing job.
Sarina: 04:16 That's amazing. Okay, I'm ready to have my mind blown.
Jess: 04:20 Alright, so with no further ado, here is my interview with Jill Twiss. I am here today with Jill Twiss. She is a senior writer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. She has a crazy, amazing story. She has Emmies, she has WGA awards, she has Peabody awards. There are some other things she does that I am so excited to talk about. I'm not going to burst the the surprise right off the bat. But Jill, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Jill: 04:52 Thank you so much for having me. I'm such a huge fan of your podcast and I'm so excited to be here.
Jess: 04:58 What was really funny was when I first asked you to be on the podcast, you were on Twitter, I was on Twitter, and we were following each other and I messaged you about being on the podcast and you were so excited. You're like, I'm a fan. And I'm like, I'm a fan. So we got to fan girl a little bit. It was very, very exciting.
Jill: 05:14 Well, I'm new-ish to book world. And so this podcast was sort of as I was thrown into it, how I learned about what I was supposed to be doing.
Jess: 05:26 Well, and you come at it from a really unconventional angle, which is part of what I want to talk about today. Speaking of books - so you have now two books. One is about to come out. But you have a book out that some of our audience may have heard of, which is called A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, which is a children's book. And I wanna talk a little bit about how that book came to be. But I'm also going to link to a wonderful article that you wrote for Glamour about why you wrote this children's book since it seems in contrast with what you do day to day, which is to write for a late night audience. Which is a story that I love. Could you tell us a little bit about how Marlon Bundo came to be? Because he is a cool, cool character. Oh, and by the way, before I keep going, you tweeted recently that you saw someone with Marlon Bundo tattooed on them. How did that happen? How did you come across that?
Jill: 06:28 Okay, well, it was at my gym. I just happened to be there and I go to sort of a very fun, weird gym where we all know each other pretty well. And so we do a name game at the beginning of every class. And this woman heard me say, my name was Jill and she said, 'Are you Jill Twiss?' And then she held up her arm and she had a full Marlon Bundo tattoo. And she said she'd gotten them with her cousin. It was the craziest thing. I can't imagine ever even getting a tattoo of my own books, much less someone else's, but it could not be a bigger honor.
Jess: 07:06 Well, and I mentioned in the introduction to Sarina because she knows of three people that have tattoos of her books on them and one is a line from one of her books and two of them are just pictures of the books. And that blows my mind. That's a level of permanence and fandom that I can't even imagine. I can't even imagine. So tell us a little bit about this book, Marlon Bundo. Who in the heck is Marlon Bundo?
Jill: 07:33 Sure. Okay. So as you said at the beginning, I am a writer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. And I have been a writer there since the show started. So I am a pretty, you know, dark, angry, comedy writer kind of person.
Jess: 07:51 And I just realized that with you saying that, that I started in absolutely the wrong place. I don't have KJ here to kick me under the table to say, 'No, no, no. You're starting in the wrong place.' Which she does so brilliantly. Because am I correct - I heard somewhere that this is your first writing job, the Last Week Tonight. Is that correct?
Jill: 08:11 It was my first professional writing job, yes. I had done stand up comedy,
Jess: 08:17 I'm sorry, but we have to talk about how that happens because the idea that your very first job, professional writing gig out of the gate is with a late night television show. I guess we kind of have to start there before we can even talk about how Marlon Bundo came to be.
Jill: 08:32 Sure, it's a lovely story about women helping women, actually.
Jess: 08:40 Oh, we like those stories a lot.
Jill: 08:42 I don't want to mislead you, it wasn't an accident. I was very much trying to get a late night writing job. I had done standup comedy. I'd loved the comedy part, but the standing up in front of people made me sort of sick to my stomach all the time. And part of me was like, if you're not happier when people clap, maybe you're a writer, maybe this isn't for you. And I started to try to find writing jobs. And as everyone listening I'm sure knows, it's really hard. And the TV late night world is just really hard to break into because it's really hard to find out how those jobs are out there. And crazily I got an email one day from a woman named Nell Scovell, who I now know was the co-writer of Lean In. She wrote for The Simpsons. She wrote for David Letterman. I had never met her, or at the time heard of her, and she said, 'Have you ever wanted to write for late night?' And I said, 'Yeah, that's all I want. Who are you? What are you talking about?' And she said, 'I've been reading your Twitter. I think you'd be great at it. She said, you know, she had been a woman writing comedy for decades and sort of thought that was enough. You know that she was the woman in the writer's room, wasn't she doing enough for women? And she realized things weren't getting any better. So she wanted to start to find women. So in any case she said, I can't get you a job but I can get your packet read, I can get someone to read your stuff. So, literally within four months I had this job.
Jess: 10:23 You do realize that you're inadvertently ratifying David Sedaris's advice that he gave on our show (which is to never, well, and I'm sure you weren't like in a position of just sitting in your apartment waiting for opportunities to come to you) but his advice on our show was to never ask anything of anyone and just wait and be ready when the opportunities come to you.
Jill: 10:47 Well, if I go back one more step. I actually did ask something of someone because my job (I was a musical theater actress and I was a standardized test tutor) and I tutored a real smart kid whose mom worked for David Letterman. And when he did really well on the SAT I asked his mom if she would meet with me and if I could write a packet, and I ended up asking someone who I didn't really know to read over that packet. She was a writer for Conan and it turns out five years later Nell had gone to her and said, 'Do you know anybody that should be writing for TV?' And she said, 'I read this packet years ago. She should be writing for late night.' So I did ask for a little help in someone just reading something and giving advice. And she couldn't help me at the time, but when she could, she did.
Jess: 11:42 That is so cool. And you've used the word packet a couple of times, and that's a word I don't think we've ever heard on our show before. So I'm sure there are people out there saying, 'Oh my gosh, what's a packet? I don't have one. I need it. What is it?' \.
Jill: 11:55 Fair. In the late night world, and that's, you know, shows like The Daily Show or Jimmy Fallon show, all the Jimmy's shows, Jimmy Kimmel's show. Instead of doing what you do I think in narrative television, which is you write a spec script of like a whole show, they want packets and every show wants a different packet. So you might write a whole bunch of monologue jokes that happen at the beginning of Stephen Colbert's show. For a show like ours, you're going to write something similar to what is going to air on the show and they give you that assignment. So you have to find out about the packet. At the time I did it, we didn't have a show, so it was a lot looser. It was a little bit like, guess what John Oliver might do on a show that doesn't exist yet. I think specifically they asked to write a domestic and an international story. For something like The Daily Show, you would write maybe something similar to what happens in like a seven minute increment. They might tell you exactly what they want, they might not. Every late night show has a different packet, but you generally have to write it specifically for that show.
Jess: 13:09 So there's no just like writing some vague generalized packet and hoping that it lands right.
Jill: 13:15 No, although weirdly I would recommend that, just because there's no way to practice this but to do it. And so I had written packets for shows that I never, ever got to submit that were just me trying to figure out, you know, how do you do this? How do you write a packet for this show? I had seen (it sounds crazy now) but I used to read like every article about writing for late night and someone had said, 'You know, well, at this late night show, they write monologue jokes. They show up at 9:00 AM and then they write till noon.' And I was like, great, three hours, I can write monologue jokes for three hours every day. So that's what I did. You know, I just tried to find like, let's pretend I have this job and figure out how to do it until finally, and it took a long time, someone gave me the opportunity to show what I'd been working on all that time.
Jess: 14:08 Is there a magic format for a packet? Like there are certain tells for hacks. Like you know, if I try to send in a spec script in just the wrong format or in a way that doesn't adhere to the look of the standard spec script, someone's going to ding it right away cause they're going to say, 'Oh, this person doesn't have the slightest idea what they're doing.' Or, we had a children's book author come on and she said one dead giveaway of people who don't know what they're doing with children's books is that they send in the wrong format, or an odd number of pages, or they say, and here's the illustrator I need to have in order to write this book.
Jill: 14:52 I did all of those wrong things, by the way. Literally, all the things you just said I'm pretty sure I did, but whatever.
Jess: 14:58 So is there a magic format for a packet? Is there a program out there that you have to have that adheres to this magic format?
Jill: 15:07 Weirdly, no, like late night I think is the Wild West of everything. Every show is different. I can't tell you they're going to be great about telling you what they want, but I think some of the best shows will give you samples of what their scripts look like and you can do your best to copy them. The closest I can give you is that you have to put it in the language of the show. You know, the packet you write for John Oliver is not going to be the same packet you write for Trevor Noah. Even if you're writing on exactly the same topic. So the big thing that they're looking for is, 'Yeah, are you putting some of yourself in there because we're hiring you because of you, but also are you in the voice of the show? We're not interested in you changing the whole format of the show. I think some people like to come in and be like, you know, I have a new idea. Like what if Jimmy Fallon was in space the whole time? And it's like, well, you're not showing us that you can write the show that we have. This is really you showing you could start today and fit in with the show that's already there.
Jess: 16:16 I was a political speech writer for a while and part of the fun (for me anyway), was the challenge of writing in someone else's voice completely and not letting my voice dominate. So that's a really interesting balance. And are there times when you write scripts and then the person who for example, John Oliver, will put his own particular read on it so you don't have to be too worried about writing it exactly the same way he would say it?
Jill: 16:41 Oh yeah. I think of course he's going to put everything in his own words. I will say, because some of us have been there since the beginning, I've absolutely adapted to John's voice, but I think in some weird ways he's adapted to our voices, too. There are jokes he tells because I love them or because you know, someone else loves that voice and he (I think) has just a lot of skill at doing lots of different kinds of jokes. So I for sure have adopted his speech patterns, but I think he has in some ways altered his speech patterns for all of us, too.
Jess: 17:20 That's fascinating. Alright, so back to Marlon Bundo. So you're writing on a television show, which isn't the normal pattern of things that the next thing on your plate, affiliated with the show is a children's book. Will you tell us how that came to be?
Jill: 17:37 Sure, yes. We are not a children's show. We say a lot of words that you wouldn't say on children's shows.
Jess: 17:45 But you do have a lot of very cute, mascot looking creatures that come on the show.
Jill: 17:54 It's true, we do love that. So it happened that I was and am obsessed with a very real bunny named Marlon Bundo. Who is, if you don't know, the Vice President, Mike Pence's actual pet.
Jess: 18:10 Now is he still around? Bunnies don't have the longest lifespan. Is the real Marlon Bundo still around?
Jill: 18:15 To my knowledge, the real Marlon Bundo is still around. I don't want to start any conspiracy theories here. I believe that there is still a Marlon Bundo living.
Jess: 18:29 I will put it in the show notes if I find otherwise.
Jill: 18:32 Right. Yeah. Don't blame it on me. And Marlon Bundo had an Instagram and I loved this bunny. It's a very cute bunny. I am not, perhaps, the biggest fan of Mike Pence and some of his policies. And one day I saw an announcement that they were releasing a book about Marlon Bundo. And for some reason I got like weirdly territorial, as though I had any ownership of this bunny, which I obviously do not. And I was like, 'No, I want to write the book about Marlin Bundo.' So I pitched it, I just wrote an email that said no, we should write a book about Marlon Bundo. That, you know Mike Pence himself does not have the kindest record perhaps with same sex marriage. And so we decided to make Marlin Bundo a gay bunny.
Jess: 19:27 So you pitched it to the show, not necessarily to a literary agent first?
Jill: 19:31 Oh, not at all. No, that was in no way involved.
Jess: 19:35 Did you have a literary agent at that point?
Jill: 19:37 Nope, I did not. I also didn't have a TV agent, for whatever that's worth. No, I just pitched it to the show as like we should put out a book, which, you know, I pitch a thousand things to the show and most of them don't happen. But they said, 'Okay, yeah, let's do it.' And we had a quick meeting just to decide if it should be an actual children's book or if it should be one of those like parody books that's really for adults, but looks like a children's book. And I think we just decided why not? Like, why not write a kind book for kids about a thing that really matters to us.
Jess: 20:20 Now the writer in me and the person who now understands publishing timelines is freaking out. Because if you have just seen that a press release or some sort of release on the Twitter feed about the fact that they're going to come out with this book about Marlon Bundo, how on earth do you get a children's book out in time to have it still be relevant to the release of the other book? Because that was part of the deal when it was announced is that it was a competing book with the real Marlon Bundo's book. So how do you make those timelines work? Publishing moves slow, Jill.
Jill: 20:55 The great news is I didn't have to do any of it. I wrote the book, actually I didn't even... I went back to my office and we didn't even assign a book at that point. We were just kind of like pondering some ideas and I said, 'You know what, I'm just going to write something that way it'll be easier for them to be like, Oh no, not that. Now that we see that, we'll say, not that, we want something more like this.'
Jess: 21:26 You have a comfort with rejection of ideas that will be so refreshing to so many of our listeners because still - there's a pitch I put out there like two weeks ago and I haven't heard back and I am just feeling all sorts of rejection and yet now I can have Jill Twiss's 'almost everything I say gets rejected at some stage of the game' You're my new voice in my head. I love it.
Jill: 21:52 I mean, all of us probably write I would guess 30 to 50 jokes for every joke that goes on the show. So that's just the norm for sure. So I wrote this - just a thing just to be like, 'Hey, I don't know what about this?' And they said, 'Oh yeah, that. We'll just publish that.' So, it turned out to be like a day-long process. We changed literally a couple of words, had someone help us with things that you're talking about now. Like this is the number of pages or whatever. And I now realize that the publisher, Chronicle, was probably flipping out. But, not my problem. I didn't know. I had no idea. We found, again, what I now know is an extremely fast illustrator. We just picked the best person we found. Who was E.G. Keller, who is fantastic.
Jess: 22:55 I have to say, the illustrations are absolutely fantastic. I love the illustrations.
Jill: 22:59 When you were saying earlier you can't ever come in demanding an illustrator, that's exactly what I did for my next book. I didn't demand anything. That's not at all true. But after this (we're skipping ahead), I did get a literary agent, and she did sell us together. So my next two books are also with the same illustrator.
Jess: 23:20 And your next two books, including the one that is going to be coming out soon, which is called The Someone New...
Jill: 23:26 Oh, that one's out.
Jess: 23:27 Oh, that one's out now. Okay.
Jill: 23:28 That one was out last June so you can buy that one right now.
Jess: 23:31 Okay. So the two books you're talking about are in addition to the Marlon Bundo book and The Someone New?
Jill: 23:37 No, sorry, I'm saying this weird. So Marlon Bundo exists in the world of the show. My first book, that is entirely outside the show, was The Someone New and that is about welcoming someone new to your life, or your country, or your whatever.
Jess: 23:57 It is delightful, and beautiful, and sweet. I got a little choked up reading The Someone New. Well, mainly, I mean the town that I live in (I'm right near Burlington, Vermont) has been a sanctuary city. You know, there are lots of someone news in Burlington. Every single time I'm out and about in Burlington I run into people who are new to town and it had a really important place for me in terms of thinking about what it must be like to try to be new somewhere. And I love the book. I absolutely loved The Someone New.
Jill: 24:36 Thank you so much. I went to 11 schools in 12 years, so I was always the someone new. So when it came down to, Hey, you can actually write anything now, generally when I write for the show, I have very specific parameters. So when it came down to I had a literary agent, I could write a children's book on anything I wanted. What I wanted to write about are the things that really mattered to me right now, which is welcoming someone new to our country, but also just - kids are faced with new things every day. And new things are scary. You know, you don't know when you're a kid. And I really wanted to help that new kid in school...
Jess: 25:23 Which gets back to your Glamour article, you talk in that article about the fact that it can be really, really difficult to reach people who are adults, who can be really entrenched in their thinking, and really entrenched in their views. Whereas with kids, there seems to be more of an openness and (that's not easier to write to) but it's a welcome and it's the reason that I've been a teacher for so long is it is so wonderful to be able to reach someone when before they've become completely entrenched in their views one way or the other and have a conversation about things that are difficult.
Jill: 25:59 Yeah, I think that whatever side of the political spectrum you're on, one thing that we're all experiencing is just finding out that adults are tough sometimes. They're frustrating. It's hard to watch things happen and realize that people are just so set in their ways and they don't want to hear always what's true. They want to hear what they want to hear. And kids, everything's new, you know, and they are perfectly willing to learn a new fact, take it in, change their mind if it changes what's previously there. There's just such a wonderful openness and I have so much hope for the next generation and I need that hope right now.
Jess: 26:48 Yeah. There was a moment when I was teaching at my very first teaching gig, I was teaching middle school kids and there was a kid who came from a really, really remote rural town. You know, he came into my classroom and from the first day he would say things that I could tell were not his words. He was parroting things that he'd heard from other adults. And it was really interesting cause he was putting things out there to see what our reaction would be. And it led to some really, really interesting conversations and moments when he realized, 'Oh, I do believe that thing I said', or 'No, I don't believe that thing I said, but I'm just putting it out there because I've never had the opportunity to get feedback on the thoughts that I hear from the adults around me. So it's just really cool to be able to get inside of a kid's head and see how their thought process is when they're forming their identity, and their views, and their beliefs, and their ethics. It's really cool.
Jill: 27:47 I've really fallen in love with the book world, first of all. But the children's book world and just like the chance to go and read books to kids and sing songs with kids. I don't have kids, so this is new to me. Everything I've learned in the children's book world has been a shock as far as like what age kids read what kind of books, like all of that stuff. I'm learning at sort of double speed as I go through this. But it is just delightful to get to work with kids and see them and you get nice emails instead of mean emails, you get nice pictures of children and dogs with your books instead of like me and emails of people threatening to you know, hurt you.
Jess: 28:33 Well, and speaking of kids you do something that I just had never even thought of as a task. You write sentences for the Scripps Spelling Bee. How did that come about? And how is that a gig that you become aware of and get?
Jill: 28:52 Yeah. Well first of all, I'm obsessed with the spelling bee. I have been for years. So it was very much on our radar. And again, I would pitch it as a story for the show and we did do it on the show once as just a short, funny story in the show. Right around then, I hit this stage of my life that I would I highly recommend, which is just ask for things you want. I don't know. Maybe they'll say yes. I've never done that before. But we did that story about the spelling bee and then I went to our executive producer and I said, 'Do we have a contact there? Can I ask them if I can write for them?' And she was like, 'Why would you want to do that?' And I was like, 'Fine, not your problem. It's fine. And I literally just emailed the spelling bee, told them what I do and that I had worked on the piece for the show and I said, 'I know you must have comedy writers write sentences. Like, I've seen the sentences that show up there, can I be one of them?' And they said, 'Yes'. That was really that easy, which I know is not how life works. And I know I had many years of opportunities not coming like that. So, now that I have a little clout and a little something, I'm just asking for all the weird things that I want. My next goal, I'm just going to put this out in the world, I want to write for the Tony awards. So if you know anyone, if you could make it happen, let me know.
Jess: 30:20 Very cool. So wait, they give you the word and then you write the sentence to go with the word that helps? So when the kid says, 'Could you give me that word in a sentence?' you're writing that sentence?
Jill: 30:31 Yes. Not all of the sentences. They have like really great experts writing sort of I'll say 'not funny sentences'. But, yes. So they do that to make sure everything is grammatically exactly what it needs to be. It's really important. It's so much more important that the sentences be correct than that they be funny. But they have comedy writers that go through maybe a month before the B and write a certain number of comedy sentences for it. And then this year for the first time, I actually got to go to the spelling bee. And as it was on the air, we were up there writing sentences for words that were coming up because they could switch the order of the words, for anyone that saw it this year, everything went crazy because there were eight champions and so everything was sort of getting decided on the fly. So we write sentences there, too.
Jess: 31:31 Wow. I actually had read somewhere, I think it might've been at the Tony awards one year, that they were writing - it was the year that Neil Patrick Harris rapped at the end and they were writing the rap during the show as winners were announced. First of all, Neil Patrick Harris, all hail Neil Patrick Harris and his ability to learn that stuff and perform it with like 10 minutes to spare. But the television world always to me, you know, Shonda Rhimes talks about writing for television as laying tracks while you're on the train that's going to... Sorry, Shonda, I'm sure I said that terribly, but it has always petrified me because of the speed at which things need to happen. So I'm always amazed when I hear things like the script story, where you're actually under pressure writing stuff while the show is happening.
Jill: 32:20 I was nervous because our show is once a week. And I have a lot of people, I have a lot of oversight on Last Week Tonight. But I actually found it incredibly calming. There's something really nice about not being able to read over what you've done. I'm writing a play right now and it could not be more stressful because I just have infinite time to revise and do and if it's up to me I will just revise for the rest of my life and no one will ever read anything I've written. So there's something really calming about being there and being under time pressure and being like, well it's out there. It worked or it didn't work. Who knows?
Jess: 33:00 Now this play that you mentioned, I had read that you are working on a musical about the convention at Seneca Falls. Is that what you're talking about?
Jill: 33:06 I am. I think it is turning into not a musical. Primarily because 2020 is the Centennial of women getting the right to vote. So this is the year for this and it takes so long to get a musical out there. That's what I thought I was going to do. And I think it's just going to be a play either first or always.
Jess: 33:32 That is so cool. So you have in fact someone in the #AmWriting Facebook group very specifically this week asked about not just wanting to know like the big picture nuts and bolts of how we (KJ, Sarina, and I) divide our time, but they wanted to know the close view of what it looks like - the granular view of how you divide your time. So what does your weekly schedule sort of look like in your daily sort of writing routine?
Jill: 34:04 Right now I'm on hiatus, so that's different and I'm going to kind of throw that out. But generally during the season, we work Wednesday through Sunday. We tape on Sunday and we work (theoretically) from 10-6. But it's whatever it takes you to get your work done. I consider myself a slow writer and I will very often write till midnight, one in the morning, whatever, when I'm on a piece. But it's really just write till you get it done or for me it's write till the singular moment when it is due. Always, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter when I started, doesn't matter how much time I have, if it's due at 9:00 AM then at 8:59 AM I will be writing.
Jess: 34:53 I've talked a lot about the fact that my deadline was supposed to be like July 1st for the book I just finished and then we moved it to October 1st but there was a conversation about, well, should I maybe propose like if there's time, which there is, because I'm not coming out until 2021 should I propose December 1st? And I'm like, Hmm, I need the pressure. I need that sort of looming-I-can-make-it-but-I got-to-keep-my-butt-in-the-chair-in-order-to-make-it. Because the minute I've got a couple extra months, I'm like, 'Or I could wash the baseboards in the bathroom.'
Jill: 35:29 Okay. I never do that. Never.
Jess: 35:31 No, I need the pressure.
Jill: 35:32 No, I am a queen of making fake deadlines for myself. Because yes, there's things I do for work. It is really hard to motivate myself to write all day and then write something for myself at night. So I will commit to other people, generally. Even when I was writing these children's books before it got to the point where there was any kind of deadlines, I would just email my agent and say, 'I'm gonna have a book to you by Tuesday at 4.' And then I had to write a book.
Jess: 36:06 I do the exact same thing and I know it's going to bite me in the butt at some point because I don't need to do that. I'm imposing a deadline on myself, but that seems to work for me.
Jill: 36:18 I think that I can't write anything without them. I'm having someone come over later today. He doesn't know this, but it is literally for the purpose of I was like, 'Can we plan out the next few scenes in this play?' But actually he's not writing the next few scenes in the play I am, but it's so that I have to write them and that I have some kind of accountability because it's a play. No one's asking for it. Frankly, no one wants it. There's a zillion plays in the world. So, in order for me to do it I have to invent a world where I'm accountable when I'm not.
Jess: 36:51 Do you have a series of deadlines then? Like do you have short term deadlines for certain scenes or do you just have some like big glowing day on your calendar, which is 'Have this mofo first draft done'
Jill: 37:01 No, I have to do it scene by scene. It's mostly just me. I mean, I'm hoping to say to this person, 'I'm going to get you a scene every day for the rest of my hiatus.'
Jess: 37:15 I mean, it sounds like this person is kind of your accountability buddy, but we've talked about this before. I'll say to KJ or to Sarina, 'I'm going to have chapter six done by end of day on Friday, hold me to that.' And they'll ask me, they'll text me, and say, 'How you doing on chapter four? How's it going?'
Jill: 37:35 I mean for most of my life I did not have a writing job. So I spent a long time crafting ways to pretend I was a professional writer. I didn't have an agent, as I said I've never had a TV agent. I got a book agent, not after Marlon Bundo came out, but maybe a week before Marlon Bundo came out, and she didn't know about Marlon Bundo when she signed me.
Jess: 38:05 So you approached her? Or she approached you, obviously?
Jill: 38:08 Because Marlon Bundo didn't exist. It was a weird situation where I had an offer for a YA book that I thought I could write while I was writing the show. I don't know how I thought I could do this. And so I needed an agent to broker that deal and so I asked friends who their agents were and if they would talk to me. And I actually chose her because she was like, 'I don't think you should this deal.' And I didn't know anything else in the world, but I was like, 'Well, she wants to work with me and she obviously doesn't want my money cause she's telling me to turn down this deal and maybe not do it at all.' So I signed with her and then I had to call her a week later and be like, 'I wasn't allowed to tell you this, but I have a book coming out tomorrow.'
Jess: 39:00 Oh, you were embargoed on that...interesting.
Jill: 39:02 Yeah. No, my parents didn't know. Noone knew I had written a book. It was all a huge secret.
Jess: 39:09 Well, parents are one thing, but not being able to tell a potential agent, that's a whole other thing. That makes talking with that person like impossible.
Jill: 39:18 She happened to be a children's book agent. But by sheer luck, I sort of fell into that because I loved her. And then I told her that. And of course a week later she was like, 'What were you talking about writing? A YA novel, obviously. You're going to write some children's books.
Jess: 39:39 That is so excellent. I love it. So we are out of time, I could talk to you for so long, but I want to talk a little bit about, have you been reading anything recently that you like?
Jill: 39:53 Oh my God.
Jess: 39:53 Anything you can talk about? Any stuff that you've been reading and enjoying?
Jill: 39:57 I'm looking right next to my bed. So give me five seconds to look at the name of it. It's called The World Only Spins Forward. And it is an oral history. It's a book about how the play Angels in America got written and sort of the world behind it, and the politics that were going on, the AIDS crisis that was going on, all of that stuff that led to Tony Kushner writing Angels in America. And I think it's lovely.
Jess: 40:28 Okay, so I will be picking this up on the way home because my husband is a super fan. My husband is an HIV doc and uses Angels in America to talk about what politically was going on at the time and essentially he re-watches the movie every six months or so. So I will be picking them on the way home.
Jill: 40:52 It's necessary reading. And it's also just fascinating, so far, from a writing perspective, when you imagine a young Tony Cushner going out and just starting seven hours of writing a play. This gives you a little idea how that happens.
Jess: 41:11 No, it's two parts. It's a two part play. We're going to need seven hours for this thing. I mean, can you even imagine?
Jill: 41:20 It seems like he did not think he was doing that, but then it'll also talk about how he'll go to a cabin and just come back with 700 pages of what he wrote there (for the play). And then he was like, 'Yeah, this will be a two hour show.' It took a while for them to figure out that perhaps it was not going to be one night of theater.
Jess: 41:40 Perhaps. I actually was just talking to Sarina when we recorded the intro that I have been listening to a book by Kristan Higgins, who our listeners will recognize. I'm listening to a book called Good Luck With That, which is a really cool premise about these three friends who met at (and I know this is not the term we're supposed to use, but they use it in the book) that met at fat camp, you know, nutrition and health camp for girls kind of thing. And 20 years later, one of them dies as a result of her morbid obesity. But leaves behind a list of (and this is not a spoiler because that happens right at the beginning of the book), their wishlist, the things they they wanted to do once they were thin. And she said, 'I want you to promise you have to do these things now.'.
Jill: 42:35 Oh my gosh.
Jess: 42:36 You can't wait till you're thin, you got to do these things. And it's a wonderful premise. The characters are fantastic. You do get to hear from the woman who has died because you're reading along; it's three women and you're reading along with her diary even though she has died. And then the other two women trying to fulfill the promises that they made to do these things now and not wait for someday about losing weight. It's three really lovely characters and Kristan Higgins is a truly gifted storyteller. So she has these three really individual women and it's a wonderful story.
Jill: 43:11 Can you say the title one more time?
Jess: 43:13 Yeah, it's called Good Luck With That by Kristan Higgins. And she's just absolutely lovely, her writing is wonderful. And it's a book that I didn't expect to fall in love with and now I'm like, 'Can I just go do some tasks or get in the car and drive around so that I can listen to it some more?' Which is always a plus for me, I love that. Are there audio books of Marlon Bundo and The Someone New?
Jill: 43:43 Oh my gosh. Is there ever an audio book of Marlon BUndo? The character of Marlon Bundo is voiced by Jim Parsons, who is a delight. Wesley is voiced by Jesse Tyler Ferguson. It's the best cast. I'm going to leave someone out so I'm not going to tell you all of them, but in it my voice shouts, 'Hooray.' So I'm a little bit in it, but it's wonderful and oh, I didn't say this, but I should say this. All the proceeds from Marlon Bundo go to the Trevor Project. Or all of our proceeds; meaning any money I would've made, any money the show would have made, any money our illustrator would have made, go to AIDS United and to the Trevor Project.
Jess: 44:28 I was just thinking about the Trevor Project yesterday. I did something really entertaining this year. I made a donation to the Trevor Project in the name of someone who would not want to be making a donation to the Trevor Project. And I specifically emailed them and this one other organization to say, 'Please, could you send a note to this person that I have made saying that, you know, I'm making this donation on behalf of you for the children under your care that really deserve to have fulfilled lives where they are seen and loved for who they are and not who someone else wants them to be.' And it was the best donation I've ever made in my whole entire life.
Jill: 45:12 I love it so much. I feel like Marlon Bundo was exactly that, on a slightly larger scale. It was a way to use the name of someone (who perhaps hasn't been kind to the LGBTQ community) and to make a lot of money for people that help those people.
Jess: 45:35 Now, do you still follow the real Marlon Bundo on Twitter?
Jill: 45:39 I absolutely do.
Jess: 45:39 Does he still have a Twitter feed? Oh, well I'm going to have to follow him as soon as we get off.
Jill: 45:44 It's absolutely worth it. And just to mention another organization cause we're doing it. With The Someone New we work together with K.I.N.D. (Kids In Need of Defense), which is an organization that helps kids at the border who are applying for asylum or, and gives them legal help. So, that's great. And I'm gonna throw out that in June I have another book coming out called Everyone Gets a Say that's about voting.
Jess: 46:15 Oh, I'm so excited. And we've been having a lot of debate in our house about what the voting age should be. There's a fantastic episode of the West Wing, actually, that I plan to make both of my boys watch where these kids come to the White House and they're trying to encourage the voting age to be lowered. They're trying to convince the White House to lower the voting age. And so we've had a very spirited conversation in our house about what the voting age should be. And actually it was reflected recently on Twitter. There was a whole thread that was going around about what various ages should be for various things. I happen to think that the voting age should be 16, because I think kids are smarter than we give them credit for. And they do have the ability to look at what's going on in our country and in the world and have a say in that.
Jill: 47:01 I don't know what I think. So I'm not going to state an opinion, but I do think voting on climate change bills should definitely be by people who are going to be around when they go into effect. I think if perhaps climate change isn't going to affect you because you're 89 years old, you shouldn't be the one making all the laws about it.
Jess: 47:23 Alright. So if people want to find out more about you and what you do, where would you send them?
Jill: 47:28 I have my name Jill Twiss, J-I L-L T-W-I-S-S is my Twitter handle, it's my Instagram handle, it's my website. So if you know that, you can find me in any capacity.
Jess: 47:41 Alright, so we've got A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Go get it. It's fantastic. The Someone New. Go get that. It's fantastic. And what's the release date for the new book again?
Jill: 47:50 It is June 4th, I think. It's the first week in June and it's called Everyone Gets a Say.
Jess: 47:58 Go preorder it now so that everyone will get a say. I'm going to be pre-ordering it myself. Thank you so much for being on the podcast. I am so grateful to you. This has been a fantastic conversation.
Jill: 48:11 I loved it. Thank you so much.
Jess: 48:13 I'm going to go off and work on my packet. Alright, thank you Jill. Bye-Bye. And until next week, everyone, keep your butts in the chair and your head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.