Kelly Oxford on Turning Her Twitter Feed Into a Memoir

Kelly Oxford parlayed her wickedly funny Twitter feed into a just-released memoir, multiple development deals and a new life in the Hollywood Hills. But as Danielle Groen discovers, the former Edmontonian’s “overnight success” took more than 140 characters can say

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Everything Is Perfect When You're A Liar by Kelly Oxford (HarperCollins Canada, $25)

Everything Is Perfect When You’re A Liar by Kelly Oxford (HarperCollins Canada, $25)

There is always a small flurry of movement. Over poached eggs and potatoes at a West Hollywood restaurant, Kelly Oxford’s hands never quite settle: They tap out a text to the babysitter of her youngest daughter, then another to her husband, James, who’s sorting out the parking pass for their residential street (the family moved across the Hills to a new rental house the weekend before). They realign a pleat on her navy, knee-length Opening Ceremony skirt. They fiddle near constantly with an ombré strand of her loose brown hair. It’s the characteristic restlessness of most busy moms—chasing after the kids is easier when you maintain a kind of momentum. And the conversation can’t help but circle back to common parental concerns: navigating the school system; securing weekend play dates.

"Went with a Kenzo outfit. Bea photobombed me to show me how big her teeth are" - Photo by Kelly Oxford

“Went with a Kenzo outfit. Bea photobombed me to show me how big her teeth are” – Photo by Kelly Oxford

But then, as she traps a stream of egg yolk underneath a home fry, Oxford casually drops an incongruous bit of trivia. Two weeks ago, at the end of January, she and her family went island-hopping with David Copperfield and his family. They were in the Bahamian archipelago that he owns called The Islands of Copperfield Bay; it’s where Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz got married. Shania Twain was there, too. Oxford’s three kids— Salinger, 11, Henry, 9, and Beatrix, 4—performed “Single Ladies” for everyone and totally killed it.

She isn’t boasting—she seems rather baffled by this bizarre assortment of people. The details are given in the same wry tone that she uses for the parking pass. It’s just that Kelly Oxford’s life now accommodates both the mundane and the magician.

If you aren’t following the 35-year-old Edmonton native on Twitter, then someone in your feed surely is: In the past four years, Oxford has amassed almost 450,000 followers with such polished punch-lines as “Web MD is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the ending is always cancer” and “Caught 2 yr old chewing on a corn kernel she found in her shoe; looks like my husband doesn’t need that paternity test after all!” Celebrities such as Diablo Cody and Roger Ebert began spreading her 140-character quips; she once gained 8,000 followers from a single John Mayer retweet. When, last year, Copperfield said she was among his favourites in the form, Oxford immediately messaged him: “You have any magic going on?” He did, which led to a trip to one of his shows in Vegas, which led to the Bahamian archipelago. Like it does.

From the outside, it can seem that the world just lines up for Oxford. Her first book, a collection of essays called Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar, comes out this month. She’s written pilots for two of the three major networks (CBS and NBC). Warner Bros.—the movie studio behind Harry Potter and Argo—has purchased one of her screenplays. All this because she’s kick-ass at Twitter? Well, no.

When the Chicago Tribune ran an article about Oxford last summer with the headline, “Writer takes short route to Hollywood success,” she took to her Tumblr. “The message I am getting from this is that living my whole life as a writer, writing for years and years, meant nothing,” she blasted. “Going to screenwriting seminars, blogging daily for 12 years, staying up for days and days to finish scripts, was a waste of my goddamn time. The message I’m getting here is that you can write a few funny tweets and become a screenwriter. It’s the American Dream, and this Canadian is calling bullshit.”

"Too many options. I generally go for Essie, It lasts longer than other polishes" - Photo by Kelly Oxford

“Too many options. I generally go for Essie, It lasts longer than other polishes” – Photo by Kelly Oxford

Put two Canadians together on a 27 C day in February, and talk will quickly turn to the weather. Driving across Santa Monica Boulevard to a nail salon, her small face encased in giant, glittery purple sunglasses, Oxford gestures to the azure sky. “Someone mentioned yesterday that five years can just vanish here,” she says. “There aren’t seasons— you can’t mark the time.” She has no problem with this. She doesn’t remotely miss the snow.

Last summer, Oxford and her family permanently relocated to L.A. from Calgary, where her husband was employed as an environmental engineer. (He now picks up contract work.) Beyond the standard Canadian selling points—it’s nice to have free health care; the public schools are good—Oxford says there’s little she misses about living in Alberta, and it makes more sense to be involved with her screenplay from a fixed Hollywood address. The transition has been relatively seamless: There are good friends here, a nice new house, and the kids are adjusting well.

Perhaps they’ve inherited a healthy dose of their mother’s fearlessness. From an early age, growing up in a solidly nuclear, lower-middle-class family, Oxford looked for adventure to give her life excitement. At 8, she produced a newspaper filled with fabrications about her neighbourhood. At 14, she fast-talked her way into a modelling agency—Oxford was a Milla Jovovich doppelgänger—and began booking part-time gigs. At 17, she took off for L.A. on a fruitless quest to track down Leonardo DiCaprio, though she did score weed off Andy Dick in a pizza place at 1 a.m. And at 19, she dropped out of the English program at Mount Royal University in Calgary after only one semester. “I was like, this is not going to help me be a better writer,” she says. “It was about observing people.” She worked at coffee shops, then at The Arden, a diner owned by Jann Arden’s brother, where Oxford first encountered her husband. (She is endlessly amused by James’ insistence on telling people how they met. “I’m like, James, nobody cares that it was The Arden. Nobody knows who the fuck that is,” she says. “I think he told Huey Lewis that once. It was so funny.”)

"Two outfit options for the day. Left is a new spring 2013 Isabel Marant jacket, J Brand jeans, Charlotte Olympia flats (subbed those jeans for white Acnes for a minute); Right is an Acne leather jacket and Isabel Marant jumper. Both on Bay blanket" - Photo by Kelly Oxford

“Two outfit options for the day. Left is a new spring 2013 Isabel Marant jacket, J Brand jeans, Charlotte Olympia flats (subbed those jeans for white Acnes for a minute); Right is an Acne leather jacket and Isabel Marant jumper. Both on Bay blanket” – Photo by Kelly Oxford

The timing of their meet cute was ideal—Oxford was ready to try something radically different, something like domesticity and motherhood. “I started going out and being crazy so young that I didn’t feel young when I had [Salinger, at 23],” she says. “I never wanted to go to a nightclub again, I never wanted to date again. I was done.” After making the decision not to return to work, Oxford divided her days between caring for her infant daughter and honing her writing skills online. In 2001, she began sharing her experiences with a blogging community (she won’t name it; she’d prefer her early work not be hacked), and within two years, her confessional style and wicked humour garnered a serious following. At that time, a well-trafficked blog could boast about 300 subscribers. Oxford had 10,000.

It’s her audacity that people mention first. Oxford’s Twitter account is filled with such lines as “Does this glitter in my cleavage make my childhood look traumatic?” that prompt both shock and recognition, resulting in a half-gasp, half-honk of laughter and disbelief. It’s not an attractive sound, and it’s why one checks Oxford on public transit  at one’s own risk. Other culprits include: “Texting ‘Going to Taco Bell. Craving those nacho fries.’ is the closest I’ve gotten to a suicide note,” and “2yr old: ‘Do frogs talk?’ Me: ‘No.’ 2yr old: ‘Actually, they do. They ribbit. That’s how frogs talk.’ Lesson: 2yr old is a bit of an asshole.”

“Kelly always says what you’re thinking but aren’t quite willing to say,” explains Kate Cassaday of HarperCollins Canada, who, along with It Books publisher Cal Morgan, edited Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar. “None of us has lives that are perfectly suited for public consumption. We all have thoughts we’re not proud of. I love that she’s willing to put herself out there, to be so unapologetic.”

The essays in Everything Is Perfect canvass moments from Oxford’s past that most of us would pay good money to forget: fielding abuse from the patients at a brain-injury rehab centre where she briefly worked in her early 20s; posing as a homeless street kid to receive a free flight home to Edmonton from the Salvation Army in Vancouver. (She refers to this as the worst thing she’s ever done—her “terrible, horrible.” It’s pretty appalling, but she remains emphatically likeable nonetheless.) There’s actually a chapter called “I Peed My Pants and Threw Up on a Chinese Man,” in which a 14-year-old Oxford proceeds to do just that. This brutally candid point of view is one she consciously cultivates; there’s generosity in her embrace of embarrassment and self-effacement. By comparison, your own terrible, horrible can’t seem so bad.

“My point of view is best when I’m not worried about being judged for what I’m thinking about, because it’s never a bad outcome when I say what I’m thinking. People struggle with this all the time: How honest can I be during my day? ” Oxford says. “If everybody let themselves be and say and do exactly what they’re thinking, they’d not only be happier but be way more interesting. I’m a firm believer that nobody’s really that awful.”

Even from those early days with the blog, though—even as she raided her life’s most cringe-worthy moments—Oxford’s goal was not emotional catharsis. It was to reach an audience. “I was a writer, so that was never a place to communicate how shitty I was feeling, or how hard it was to have a baby, or Oh look, their first smile!” she says. “I was always trying to put out the most entertaining aspects. It was never therapy.” Then, as now, she offered up private experiences, but with an eye to how they’d play on the public stage. “I curate the family-sitcom moments from my life, and that’s it,” she explains. “That’s all I use.”

"Drive home on Mulholland Drive" - Photo by Kelly Oxford

“Drive home on Mulholland Drive” – Photo by Kelly Oxford

In 2010, a TV pilot Oxford wrote called “The Mother of All Something,” which borrowed liberally from her own life, was purchased by CBS; Jessica Alba signed on to produce. Like 98 percent of all pilots, it was not picked up for production, but eventually led to securing an agent, Cliff Roberts, who thought her talents would be well-suited to a feature screenplay. His wife, Kerry Roberts, was introduced to help guide Oxford through her first film script, an R-rated, female-centred comedy about a young stoner who tries to preserve her party-girl image after discovering she’s knocked up. The result, Son of a Bitch, “was very much inspired by Kelly’s life,” Kerry Roberts says. “I felt this really strongly—she has to write herself. She has amazing stories.” Warner Bros. agreed, and they are currently hunting for actors and a director to match to the script.

There is no shortage of demand for Oxford’s talent and time: She has turned down the chance to write for a number of top-rated TV sitcoms, including Modern Family. Her fellow writers were astonished that she would pass up the money, the education, and the probable Emmy, but while Oxford concedes that Emmys are plenty nice, she insists it wasn’t a terribly difficult decision. “I’m in a fortunate position right now, and I ultimately didn’t pursue Modern Family because I can still sell my own original content about my own family,” she says. “So why would I let another show have my stories?”

It is enormously refreshing to hear Oxford speak with such confidence about the trajectory of her career. Nice Canadians—nice Canadian women, especially—are not supposed to be so naked with their ambition, nor so assured about its results. “Psychologically, women don’t boast,” Oxford says. “So I try to do the opposite. I try to sell myself when I’m in a room with people. Men do it all the time: They talk about what they’re doing, what they’re successful at, how good they are. And women just don’t.” She’s right, but it’s an important reminder, one you want to whisper to every nervous twentysomething walking into her first job interview.

Right now, Hollywood is paying particular attention to social media (still a relatively new phenomenon) and female comedy (a way older one, as any Austen fan will attest, though it can sometimes feel that producers only discovered funny women post-Bridesmaids). Oxford stands at the nexus of these two trends, and she’s not about to waste time while they shed their currency. “When you’re in this sort of business and opportunity presents itself, you have to grab it, and then you have to work three times as hard as you think you have to,” she says. “There are people on Twitter who are a hundred times funnier than me. But you can’t get the job if you don’t know how to do it. You can have all this interest, and all this press, but that will go away if you don’t actually work.”

“Very early on, Kelly knew what she wanted to do,” says Angela Brown, Oxford’s friend for the past 17 years; they met at a video-rental store in Edmonton. (Brown recommended a couple of Jim Jarmusch films, then gave Oxford coloured Nat Sherman cigarettes.) “She very much feels that she has to be involved in the choices she makes in her career. She decides whether she wants to go down a path. She has always taken control.”

Aside from the occasional appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live—he was an early supporter and the two remain close friends—you won’t have seen much of Oxford on the talk-show circuit or giving interviews to Canada AM. There’s a reason for that. She understands the power of narrative, and she did not want her narrative to be the one that the media enjoys: the stay-at-home mom who sold a pilot. “It’s the wrong story,” she says. “Yeah, it’s cute and everything, but it’s not going to be what I’m remembered for, so why cash in on that now?” But with the release of Everything Is Perfect, and with the upcoming film, Oxford will begin to use the attention to shape the story she wants to tell. Not the hot housewife. Not the overnight Twitter success. Not even the guest of David Copperfield’s own private archipelago. The smart, funny, confident woman who worked her ass off to make a career as a writer.

Of course, she won’t exactly abandon the 140-character form. The day after our interview, Oxford offers up, “There aren’t any girl magicians because we burned them all,” and the Internet promptly ripples with the click of a thousand retweets.

Order Oxford’s memoir, Everything Is Perfect When You’re A Liar, now.

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