THE SILVER WOMEN INTERVIEW Meet Deborah Copaken: Author-Photographer-Journalist
– as told to The Silver Women
October 30th, 2019
WOMEN WHO INSPIRED YOU AS A YOUNG GIRL
Anne Frank, for her vulnerable words of teenage normalcy during abnormal times; Laura Ingalls Wilder, for making being a tomboy cool; my grandmother, Sylvia Copaken, for being one of the first female lawyers in the U.S.; Stevie Nicks, for providing (still!) the soundtrack of my life.
WOMEN WHO INSPIRE YOU NOW
Elizabeth Warren, because I want someone who’s talking about healthcare and daycare, with vast experience as a law teacher and lawmaker, to be president.
I essentially had two mother figures in my life. My own mother, Margie Copaken; and then, for eleven wonderful years, between 2001 and 2012, Nora Ephron became my surrogate mother/mentor until her untimely death. These were their most valuable pieces of advice:
“Everything is Copy.”- Nora Ephron (advice from her own mother)
HAVE YOU MADE CAREER CHANGES OVER THE YEARS?
So many. Where do we even begin?
At 18, I thought I wanted to be an actor. I acted in one film, Key Exchange, and realized when I saw myself onscreen that I wasn’t movie star material.
At 22, I moved to Paris to become a war photographer, covering stories in Afghanistan, Israel, the former Soviet Union, Romania, Zimbabwe, all over Europe and the U.S., etc. At 26, I transitioned to TV journalism, working as a producer first at ABC News then at NBC News.
At 32, the mother of two small children, I took a leap and wrote Shutterbabe, which became a bestseller and launched my writing career. Five more books followed (Between Here and April, Hell is Other Parents, The Red Book, The ABC’s of Adulthood, The ABC’s of Parenthood) with a sixth in the hopper, but I also became a solo mother at 47 and have had to juggle corporate jobs with health insurance on the side to keep my family afloat and healthy. Some of those jobs sucked, some were fun, but they’ve all provided excellent fodder for my new memoir, LADYPARTS.
This year, I spent all winter in a TV writer’s room as a staff writer for Darren Star’s new show, EMILY IN PARIS. I also served as a consultant on his other show, YOUNGER.
THROUGH MY DECADES!
Love! Passion! War photography! Paris! And then I moved to New York, got married, and was suddenly supporting both of us while my husband went back to school and worked at unpaid internships. We got married at 27, had our first child at 29. I loved being a young mother. But I didn’t love the lack of paid maternity leave or affordable childcare. We went into debt during my maternity leave, just so I could continue breastfeeding and caring for our infant during his first crucial three months of development. Plus there was the $9000 it cost to have each baby. And that was with insurance. I ended up doing all of the childcare, even after I went back to work. I remember walking along the Hudson one night after dinner with my new infant, alone, seeing all of the other new parents in pairs, strolling hand-in-hand with their babies, and weeping. In retrospect, the fissures in my marriage were already clearly visible.
I had my second child at 30 and took a leave from my TV news job at 32 when I got a contract to write Shutterbabe, my first memoir. I had to learn how to be a writer on the job, having never formally studied it, and it was an extraordinary period of growth and discovery. Plus it allowed me to be more present in my children’s lives. I got pregnant with my 3rd child at 39: an unexpected but beautiful surprise. I started writing in earnest for various magazines and newspapers during this time as well.
Back to infant care, I published my first novel, then two more books, lots of magazine articles, and watched my father die from pancreatic cancer at 67: devastating. After he took his last breaths, I realized I did not want to reach the end of my life still miserable in my own marriage. I still had time, and I was truly unhappy by then in my relationship, hard as we worked in therapy to try to fix what was wrong. It was unfixable. We separated when I was 47. He moved across the country. Suddenly, I was not just a single mother but a solo mother, in charge of all income, health insurance, childcare, etc. Back to the corporate world, I went, with many twists and turns, publishing two more books on the side. I also had serious health issues: DCIS, heart issues, cervix removal followed by an emergency bleed out (“vaginal cuff dehiscence,” do not google it, it was hideous.) Meanwhile, I was using all the new apps––and I mean all of them––to search for love: a truly humbling few years of nine parts humiliation for every one part grace. I’m writing a book about all of this right now called LADYPARTS: that’s how hard it would be to try to summarize this moment in time in this small space.
A rebirth, in every sense of the word: personally, professionally, spiritually. Met my new partner at 51, and we’ve been together ever since. What a revelation mature love is. The relationship has been honest and beautiful and grounding. Meanwhile, I’m holding down four jobs to make ends meet: my full-time job as Head Writer at a company called Neurotrack, which is trying to crack the nut of Alzheimer’s; my column at the Atlantic; my book contract for LADYPARTS for Random House; my job as staff writer for Darren Star’s new show, EMILY IN PARIS. I love this new chapter in life. It feels earned as if all the lessons and mistakes have been carefully titrated down to this moment now. There are times these days when I can be brought to tears by the simplest stuff: a sunset, a blooming flower, the touch of my lover’s hand, wind. Also, being played by Catherine Keener in Amazon’s new series, “Modern Love,” based on my New York Times column by the same name, is kind of a dream I didn’t even know I was allowed to have come true.
From Talk magazine for the launch of Shutterbabe, 2000. Photo by Oliviero Toscani
DO YOU THINK OLDER WOMEN ARE VALUED OR CELEBRATED?
Lol. No. Just as we realize how valuable we are,
they shove us in a closet and hang the do-not-disturb sign on the door.
WHAT ARE YOU THE MOST GRATEFUL FOR
The love of my children, the love of my new partner, each new day, my health.
HAS THERE BEEN A CIRCUMSTANCE GOOD OR BAD THAT HAS CHANGED YOUR OUTLOOK ON LIFE
I’ll be answering this question extensively in LADYPARTS. I’m writing as fast as I can!
YOUR THOUGHTS ON AGING
I’m fine with it. Life moves on. We are here but a blip then gone.
DOWNSIDE: Migraines and death.
UPSIDE: I get it now. The Beatles were mostly right. Love is all you need. Plus affordable healthcare, that would be nice.
YOUR ADVICE TO YOUNG WOMEN OF TODAY?
For fuck’s sake, stop worrying about your body. Feed it good food, get 30 minutes of exercise a day––yes, a walk in the neighborhood counts and is good for you––and throw away your scale. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? You’re beautiful, just as you are. Also, please do not put up with cruelty, disinterest, selfishness, or apathy from a partner. They can’t commit? They lie? They put themselves first? Empathy and showing up when you need them is “not their thing”? Bye-bye.
One more thought: Botox, really? Are we that afraid of aging that we’re putting botulism toxins in our faces? I’m typing this in a Pain Quotidien on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, having just taken part of an Alzheimer’s study at Weill Cornell. The women walking around this well-off neighborhood look like cartoon fembots. Lip fillers! Cheek fillers! It makes me deeply sad. Embrace your lines, my friends! Embrace the wear and tear, the graying of your hair: you’ve earned it, and you’re beautiful.
– Deborah Copaken xoxo
FEW OF MY FAVORITES
“Landslide” by FLEETWOOD MAC because it’s helped me through many a tough moment and then some. But if you’re looking for an incredible new album I’d suggest the latest by THE NATIONAL (“I am Easy to Find”) and VAMPIRE WEEKEND (“Father of the Bride.”) Exquisite, both of them.
ANNA KARENINA is perfect, but if I had to bring one book with me to a desert island, I’d probably bring Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I find something new in it each time I read it.
THE GREAT BEAUTY was an exceptional film about aging, life, beauty, love, all of it. Go go go!
PEONIES, just to watch them go from tight little balls to explosions of deckle-edged beauty.
For the first time in my life, I started wearing a scent this year. Mostly because there’s a LE LABO store in my neighborhood, and when I took a whiff of Santal 33, I thought, good lord, I must smell that smell every day. But, ugh, the price! I’ll make it last.
PARIS, no explanation needed.
If I could afford to, I’d eat OYSTERS every day for every meal. Barring that, I’m quite fond of the AVOCADO.
DIANE ARBUS made me want to be a photographer.
I’ve been wearing the same skin cream since I was 32 and realized I should really start wearing one. THE BODY SHOP Vitamin E face cream. It used to be $11 back then. It’s more now, but not too bad. It’s the only thing I put on religiously every morning, and I get upset when I run out before having replenished my supply, which, by the way, is sometimes hard to do, as they’re always out. Whatever you do, don’t buy it on Amazon. It’s a scam. Trust me, I had to learn the hard way. Go to the store only.
I don’t wear makeup unless it’s a wedding or I have to go on TV, and even then, ugh. I hate it.
I once met Sally Mann, the photographer, at my dad’s friend’s house, where we were both staying as guests. I’ll never forget seeing her appear at breakfast that first morning in her worn Levi’s, crisp white shirt, and sneakers, without a trace of makeup on her face. I’ve basically tried to dress this way, in admiration, ever since.