Marlee Matlin: ‘A Chicago girl, inside and out’

 

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
December 23, 2007

Since winning the Academy Award for her breakthrough performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” Marlee Matlin has been renowned for her acting. But Matlin, 42, also is an accomplished author of children’s books.

Her latest, Leading Ladies, takes up where her previous books, Deaf Child Crossing and Nobody’s Perfect, left off. Spunky young Megan happens to be deaf but she’s not about to let that put her at a disadvantage. Co-authored by Doug Cooney, the book is aimed at the 9- to 12-year-old set, but Leading Ladies (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $15.99) has attracted the attention of adults who also enjoy the breezy narrative.

Matlin, who was born and reared in the Chicago area, lives in Los Angeles but says she will always consider the Windy City her home.

Q. Megan is such a strong young girl — smart, funny and witty. How much of yourself do you see in her?
A. In character and attitude, Megan is Marlee at 8 years old. Though most of the book is fiction, I also used a lot of names and places from my own childhood growing up in Morton Grove. I culled a number of experiences from my own growing up — Megan feeling frustrated at not being able to use the phone to call her grandmother, the friendly neighbor with three fingers, Megan’s dogs Solo, who was dognapped, and her dog Apples, who had no teeth and bad breath. Also, Megan’s love for performing for hours and hours in front of the bathroom mirror! Those stories actually happened to me. I also loved using the names of my real friends and family members in each of the characters.

Q. Are favorable book reviews comparable to the accolades you’ve received for your acting?
A. Actually my first book review wasn’t as good as my first film review. I certainly didn’t win an Academy Award for it. But I didn’t write the book for critics, I wrote the book for children. And the overwhelming positive response from them — especially from my own kids — was just as good as receiving an Oscar.

Q. Many actors are encouraged not to go outside the box. When you told people you were going to write a book, what kind of encouragement or discouragement did you receive?
A. Actually I was asked originally to write my autobiography, but I wasn’t ready to do that yet. And I had wanted to write a children’s book ever since I was 11 years old. I wanted to tell the world it was OK to be deaf. I was fortunate that Simon & Schuster responded so favorably to my idea of writing a children’s book instead of an adult book. My family and friends also loved the idea, though I’m sure they’re all still waiting for my autobiography to see what I’ll say about them. Ha!

Q. When you and Doug Cooney collaborate on a book, do you write together, or is it more like the Lennon and McCartney songwriting method, where one would work on a song and the other would tweak it?
A. I should only wish I was as talented as either half of Lennon and McCartney! Actually, it was great to work with Doug because I would tell him my stories in sign and Doug would weave them into words and eventually into the chapters that became the book. His sense of humor and devotion to telling the story of Megan as I imagined it couldn’t have been more appropriate. I guess in that sense, we are a good “team” like Lennon and McCartney — but don’t ask me to sing!

Q. How did growing up in the Chicago area shape who you are today?
A. Growing up in Chicago gave me a sense of community, family and pluckiness that I think only people who’ve lived through Chicago winters can have. I’ve carried Chicago with me everywhere I go and no matter where I am living, whether it was New York or California, I tell people that I’m a Chicago girl, inside and out. Proud of it. To this day, I’ve done my best to recreate the life I grew up loving in Chicago for my children. I’ve made a deliberate effort to live away from the crazy Hollywood lifestyle and instead chose a city and a neighborhood just outside of Los Angeles that reminds me of my childhood Chicago — full of trees and children playing everywhere. In the end, I can’t say enough good things about Chicago.

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