Damn! We just LOVE it when a good writer — and a friend — makes good. And we’ve got to say a hearty CONGRATULATIONS to one of our favorite mom bloggers and humor writers, Karen Alpert, better known to her legions of fans, as Baby Sideburns. When we visited with Karen Alpert last Fall, she had just self-published her book “I Heart My Little A-Holes” —using an ingenious Kickstarter campaign — and immediately hit the New York Times Bestsellers List. Today, her book is being reissued by HarperCollins. Well done, Karen! In honor of her achievement, here’s our interview with the lovely Karen, who doesn’t curse nearly as much in person as she does on her blog. Enjoy!
Originally published November 11, 2013.
You’ve just gotta love a woman who says Fuck a lot. ‘Cause even if I don’t always say it, I am usually thinking it. Loudly. Very, very loudly. Sometimes it comes out flippin’ or freakin’. But you know, know, know, that while my lips are saying frickin’, my brain is going FUUUUUCK! Which is why last year, when I stumbled onto the wickedly funny post “Why I’m A Worse Mom Than You,” I fell totally head over F-Me-heels for Chicago blogger Karen Alpert — better known to her many, many fans as Baby Sideburns. Now I’ll certainly debate her premise — there are definitely days when Joan Crawford would get Mom Of The Year ahead of yours truly. But like the thousands of other readers who also found Karen last year after her “What NOT To F’ing Buy My Kids This Holiday” went viral and firmly established her as a Must-Read Mom Blogger, I was instantly hooked on her rant-like-it-really-is POV. So I was beyond thrilled when I learned (via Facebook, natch) that she’d joined the ranks of Mommy Lit Authors with I Heart My Little A-Holes, a collection of new essays and blog favorites about poopie diapers, vajayjays, penises, hating on Caillou, traveling with tots and the other horrifying, maddening stuff of motherhood. Published by Alpert herself through an ingenious Kickstarter campaign, I Heart My Little A-Holes was released October 22 and immediately hit the New York Times Best-Seller List for ebook nonfiction — alongside such heavyweights as Malcolm Gladwell, Cheryl Strayed, Sheryl Sandberg and Peter Baker, no less. One small step for mommy bloggers … and a gigundo leap for all of us who aspire to a book of our very own.
I called the New York Times best-selling author a few days after she learned she’d earned the right to tack that bio line after her name forever after, to find it was still business as usual in the Baby Sideburns’ household: Her kids were having a knock-down-drag-out fight over … a book. Preschoolers, it turns out, don’t give a shit about the New York Times, or media calls for that matter. And since I was a full hour early for our interview — because apparently even though I have gone to college and graduate school, I’m not able to negotiate a change in time zones, even before the clocks got turned back — Karen graciously informed me she’d be free once she could hand off her referee whistle to the babysitter and escape to Starbucks. (Honestly, WHERE would writers get any work done if there were no Starbucks?!?)
So 60 minutes later, as she settled in with her coffee and cell phone in a reasonably quiet corner of her neighborhood Starbucks, I asked her straight up, “Karen … so, how the fuck did you do it?”
Karen Alpert [laughing]: It’s been a crazy year. I found out a couple of nights ago that I’d made the best-seller list, and I think my jaw hit the counter top. And when I woke up the next morning, I was like OH. MY. GOD! It’s unbelievable.
Norine: So, give us a bit of the backstory. How did Baby Sideburns come to be a blog and how did your blog lead to a best-selling book?
Karen: I’ve been writing since I was a kid. And after college, I was an advertising copywriter for 15 years. But even before I knew what blogging was, I was writing stories about having my first child, Zoey. Meanwhile, I’d moved to the suburbs of Chicago. I didn’t have many friends there yet, and I was a stay-at-home mom for the first time. That’s when I started writing a blog I initially called Mommyhood Unplugged. I was probably putting up one blog a month and maybe had about 170 readers. Eventually, I began writing for the website Families In The Loop, and my blog got accepted onto Chicago Now, a conglomerate of awesome blogs in the Chicago area. Then last November, I wrote a post called “What NOT To F’ing Buy My Kids This Holiday.” And my blog just exploded. The number of readers I had just snowballed. After that, I started writing and writing more, just feeding the beast. I was trying to post at least three times a day and write at least two blogs a week. I kept the momentum up. In less than a year, I went from 170 readers to 142,000 readers. It’s been crazy.
Norine: I recognized some of my all-time favorite posts in your book: “Why I’m A Worse Mom Than You;” “10 Things I Really F’ing Want For Mother’s Day;” the priceless essay about the vagina cupcakes that you read at the I Just Want To Pee Alone reading in Chicago last summer called “I’ll Have The Brazilian In The Back.” (Readers, since you won’t believe them till you see them, Karen was kind enough to provide pictures in the book!) How did you determine the mix of old and new pieces to bring together in your book?
Karen: I was shopping a novel around last year. And the whole query process was horrible. I was getting turned down left and right. And for good reason. When I look at that novel now, I see it has a lot of problems, and it’s not very good. But with Baby Sideburns exploding and me writing so much, I think my writing has gotten much better, and I’ve kind of found my niche where I am good. I realized that if I was going to put out a book, people didn’t want a novel from me. They wanted what they love about Baby Sideburns. And that’s really short, fun, honest essays and thoughts and pictures. That’s what everyone was eating up.
But doing the book was really complete chaos. I had a huge pile of blogs and a huge pile of ideas. Half the challenge was simply organizing these blogs into something that made sense. So I added some 24 new chapters and freshened up some older pieces — only those that I knew people really liked — and now we have I Heart My Little A-Holes.
Norine: I think one of my favorite stories is how you chose your blog name, Baby Sideburns. Do you want to share it?
Karen: Everyone always asks Where did you come u with the name Baby Sideburns? That’s one of the stories I don’t tell because it’s one of the great stories in the book.
Norine: Ah, so if readers wanna know, they’re gonna have to read the book.
Karen: It’s in the book.
Norine: Another great story — not in the book — is how you used Kickstarter to finance the self-publishing of I Heart My Little A-Holes.
Karen: I can’t take credit for that. A friend of mine who works for a hedge fund had just done a Kickstarter campaign for one of his clients. He suggested I do one too. I didn’t even know what Kickstarter was. My first thought was, That’s not the traditional way to publish. But then I started looking at Kicktarter and I thought, That’s pretty cool. I decided to run with it and see what would happen. And it was amazing. Getting almost 800 people to back your project before it’s even done, to have that kind of support, is just such an amazing feeling. And a handful of them just gave money. They didn’t even take one of the rewards. [Which ran the gamut from signed copies of the book, to Thank Yous in the Acknowledgments to autographed fart/camel-toe pads and even an offer to have Baby Sideburns attend your baby shower! Sweet!]
The money is sitting in your account, so you’re like, I have to write this book now. I have no choice. It became my number-one priority. I really wanted to make those people proud. So I feel like they helped write this book as much as I did.
Norine: One of the things you do exceptionally well, and in a hilariously potty-mouthed way, is voice the kinds of thoughts that moms may have but perhaps feel guilty about having and maybe don’t even feel comfortable admitting to themselves. There are days when I think my 7-year-old is acting like a little a-hole — especially when he drops something beneath his chair at the kitchen table, then calls to me to walk across the room to pick it up for him. That’s classic a-hole territory. But I’m also thinking about that dark essay, the only truly serious piece in your book, in which you admit that having a baby had so completely upended your life, that for a nanosecond, you thought about tossing that baby right off your balcony so your life could go back to normal. Of course, you didn’t do it. You never would have done it. But why is it important for moms to talk about even thinking about doing something like that?
Karen: When I write something, before I push Post, I am often scared that I’m going to be the only one who’s had a particular thought. Like will anybody else possibly relate to this? And then I push Post and within minutes, 200 people click Like and say Yes! That’s exactly me! You read my thoughts! We’re all having these feelings. So if a big percentage of us are having these dark feelings, why are we embarrassed to talk about it? Why should we have to feel sad and alone and stuck in our own heads, when really, we should all be in this together.
We’re inundated with these Hallmark-y images of mothering/motherhood. Look at Facebook where people are only posting the amazingly smiley happy pictures of their families. When you’re looking at this on Facebook or Pinterest all day long, you start to get depressed and think Why is my life the only one that’s not wrinkle-free? So I think it’s very important that lots of writers, not just me, come out in all sorts of ways to say Everything is not hunky dory and wonderful. Everybody has their problems. You’re not the only one.
Now I knew wanting to throw my baby off the balcony … I knew that was unusual to say that out loud. But I had a feeling that other people … I mean, Susan Smith rolled her kids into a lake in her car … so clearly there are people having those feelings. Maybe Susan Smith was beyond help. I don’t know. But I feel like if everybody talked about these things out loud, then if you did have these feelings, it wouldn’t be so hard to ask for help, or at least talk to a friend or your husband about it. It wouldn’t be taboo. It’d be normal. Especially if those thoughts were more than fleeting. Maybe then people who really need help, like Susan Smith, would have an easier time asking their OB or someone else. I don’t know, maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I don’t think so. Right now, mothers are often too scared to even admit they have these kinds of thoughts, so they just bottle it up inside, where it just festers. That’s why I feel it’s important to be honest and write about whatever feelings I’m having. There are some things I don’t write about. But I try not to censor myself too much.
Norine: And it definitely helps that you’re saying things in a way that’s highly entertaining, especially because you don’t look like a middle-aged, chain-smoking, drug-addled crazy woman.
Karen: I hide it well.
Norine: The question that always comes up when it’s a mom writing is How do you find the time to write? You’re incredibly prolific. What do you say to mom bloggers who are juggling work, children, running a home, school activities, homework, sports, ah the list is endless … but who are desperate to write too?
Karen: My lord. When do I write? It used to be relatively easy when I just had Zoey, and she napped three hours at a time. That’s when I had time to write. Now I have both kids, and I squeeze in writing whenever I can. I’ll plop Zoey in front of the TV while Holden naps and write for an hour. I’ve hired a baby sitter a couple of times a week — the Kickstarter project allowed me to do that so I could actually get the book done. But it’s a hard balance to reach. I feel like I neglected my kids for the last couple of months, and I want to stop doing that. But if you have any kind of success in life, there’s always this fear that if you stop for just a moment, it’s going to go away.
Norine: Absolutely. That’s why I freelanced through my whole pregnancy and was back at my laptop two weeks after giving birth. Fear. I was so afraid I’d be out of the game.
Karen: There’s a ton of pressure. It’s lifted a little now that the book is out and is doing well. But I have a million things on my plate still. The truth is, being any kind of writer, a self-published writer, you don’t make money unless you market the hell out of your book. So figuring out how to get people to buy it is going to be my life for a while. And at the same time, I want to keep writing and figuring out what’s next. I just signed on to write for NickMom, which should be fun. I love Chicago Now and I’m writing for them a bunch. Meanwhile, I feel like my house has gone to shit because all I do is write. With the Kickstarter project, I had to sign more than 700 books and send them out. So if you come into my house, there are ridiculous stacks of all the boxes that all those books came in. It looks like I should be on Hoarders. Everyday I say I should really break down those boxes and put them in the recycling. But something always comes up, so we’re just living with boxes.
Norine: I hear that. I’ve got dust bunnies the size of tumbleweeds rolling through my living room.
Karen: I can only imagine how many good ideas have been lost under a pile of crap in my kitchen. But if you want to write a ton, you have to let other parts of your life go. That’s really the answer. Parenting, writing and cleaning — that’s the trifecta. You have to pick two out of the three. And I’ve chosen writing and parenting. I remember, a while back someone posted on my page that they clean up every hour. Every hour they clean up the area around them. EVERY HOUR. I’m like, Are you kidding me??? I’m lucky if I clean my arm pits once a day.
Karen Alpert is the creator of Baby Sideburns. Her book, I Heart My Little A-Holes, is available in print and ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iBook. Follow her at Baby Sideburns, on Facebook and on Twitter. We do!