Q&A with Tara Ison, author of REELING THROUGH LIFE

I went away, to have adventures; I’d lived a sheltered, landlocked life, too, and maybe I needed that shock and grope we experience when stripped of our context. What the hell had I experienced? What real experience had I even seen?

It’s the rush of A/C when you walk through the door, the expanse of the screen as it comes into view. Buttered popcorn, the angled seat, the thrill when the lights dim, the images and surround sound that immerse you in the lessons on life–real or imagined. The cinema. Where a great movie will tap into your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and leave you changed. Or, at least entertained.

ReelingHighResSuperThinBorderIn REELING THROUGH LIFE: HOW I LEARNED TO LIVE, LOVE, AND DIE AT THE MOVIES, Tara Ison explains that for her, though, movies represent much more than entertainment. Baptized in motion pictures at an early age, she began a relationship with movies that, as she says in her new memoir, “taught me how to light Sabbath candles, how to seduce someone with strawberries. Bulldoze my way past writer’s block. Go a little crazy.”

For Tara Ison, “the movie theatre has been a classroom.”

I’m thrilled to host Tara Ison today, as she talks about her memoir, movies, and writing.

There’s also a giveaway! Drop your name in the comments by Tuesday, May 19th, for a chance to win a copy of REELING THROUGH LIFE, where you’ll read (among other topics) about romance, religion, and Mrs. Robinson.


CC: Your parents began taking you to movies at a very young age. And, not just Disney or G-rated shows, but movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Taxi Driver (at twelve!). I saw Clockwork Orange at the naive age of sixteen and–holy cow–that was of my own accord (and I wasn’t remotely prepared). Was there ever a conversation with your parents later on about growing up under the glow of mature cinema?

TaraIsonHeadShot06TI: Funny you mention A Clockwork Orange – a recent episode of Louie had Louis CK very upset when he found out his teen daughter had watched that at a sleepover! And he tries to explain to his daughter why he feels it was inappropriate at her age, and she just laughs it off.

When I was young my parents didn’t really “debrief” with me after watching these movies – and I wish they had. I think some discussion about my experience of such films – was I confused? frightened? disturbed? – would have helped me process my feelings, given me more context, allowed me to work through and express my thoughts. I asked my father about a year ago, while I was working on this book, if he and my mother ever worried or wondered about the effect on me of such “mature cinema,” as you say, and he was quite surprised by the question – he said No, it never occurred to either of them to wonder about that.

I do think some of their attitude had to do with the times. We’re talking about the late 60s and early 70s, and my parents were part of a far more permissive culture – no rules, no boundaries (or very few!). I’m sure they just thought they were being wonderfully open-minded – and hey, it was also a stunning and revolutionary era of cinema. They probably felt they were exposing me to an important art form….

And I also have to say that I’m glad they erred on the side of “exposing” me to film, books, art, culture – they took me to the theatre, to concerts, encouraged my reading anything I wanted. I do believe that was far more valuable for me than if they had limited my experience – in hindsight, I’m very grateful to them.

CC: In your book, you talk about your experience with movies in the same way other people might discuss religion–as a means to measure ourselves, our success, our level of “normalcy.” Now that you’ve written this book on how art and life come together with such effect, do you still view movies with the same intensity or need? 

TI: I do feel the same need, the same desire to immerse myself in story – to escape, be entertained, be illuminated, be able to see myself and my own experience reflected back to me. That need is part of our DNA as humans, and I don’t ever want to lose the joy or richness of that experience.

But I also think – or I’d like to think – I’m a little more aware of the effect, or possible influence, at this point in my life. Especially having written the book – I have more context now for those “life lessons” (how to be a Jew, a drunk, a writer, how to die with style or deal with illness, how to go crazy, how to love, how to have sex…), and I can reflect upon the images or models we’re given with the benefit of actual life experience. I’m more able to sort through where/when I’m measuring myself against a cultural or cinematic “model” vs. what actually feels authentic.

CC: What is your all-time favorite movie that you would watch again and again and why?

TI: I don’t know if this my “all-time favorite” (I don’t think I have one – there are far too many to appreciate…), but I do wish I’d spent some time discussing Paper Moon – that film had a huge impact on me, and I’ll never tire of watching it. It could have fit very nicely in the “How to be Lolita” chapter – I’m the exact same age as Tatum O’Neal, and here is a little girl who has no interest in being pretty or cute or precociously/flirtatiously bratty, she isn’t sexualized at all, she’s smart and independent, and relies on her wits and her own judgment. I can’t think of another little girl character who is granted such agency, is allowed to self-determine and self-define herself with as much equity as the grownup characters surrounding her. Sure, yes, she’s a con artist…but that character is quite a role model, in many ways!

CC: What are you reading these days?

TI: A lot of student work! I’m just finishing up the spring semester, so looking forward to making progress on my summer reading list – looking forward to: Life Drawing, by Robin Black, Gangsterland, by Tod Goldberg, A Solemn Pleasure, by Melissa Pritchard, Scrapper, by Matt Bell, The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, just to name a few.

CC: As a writer, what piece of advice you turn to often?

TI: Well, to quote from the movies…from the film Julia, when Julia says to childhood friend Lillian Hellman:

Julia: Work hard. Take chances. Be very bold.

I should probably have that tattooed on myself somewhere…

And also from Julia – when Lillian Hellman is complaining about how hard it is to write, and her lover Dashiell Hammet says to her:

Dashiell: Well, if you really can’t write, maybe you should go find a job. Be a waitress. Nobody’ll miss you. If you’re going to cry about it, go stand on a rock. Don’t do it around me. If you can’t write here, go someplace else. Give it up. Work in a drugstore. Be a coalminer. Only just don’t cry about it.

Which I love. Basically: So, it’s hard, yeah. Get over it. Nobody cares. Stop whining. Give it up, or get back to work!


Tara Ison is author of the novels The List (Scribner), A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber, Inc.), a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), which was featured as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2013. Ball, a short story collection will be released this Fall from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. More detail can be found at www.taraison.com and www.softskullpress.com.

REMEMBER: leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of REELING THROUGH LIFE!


About Christi

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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2 Responses to Q&A with Tara Ison, author of REELING THROUGH LIFE

  1. Micki Allen says:

    Delightful interview. I cannot wait to get my copy of my autobiography … er, Reeling Through Life.
    Micki Allen recently posted..Last Wishes an’ AllMy Profile

    • Christi Christi says:

      Congrats, Micki, you are the lucky reader! And I think you’ll love this book! Look for an email from men soon.

      And many thanks to Tara Ison for the interview and for sharing wise words on life and writing!

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