Photo by Pop Culture Passionistas, 2010
When you were a kid, she was probably the first villain you ever saw on TV who was your age. And, Nellie Oleson, on Little House on the Prairie, was ruthless–mercilessly taunting poor little Laura “Half Pint” Ingalls and her perfect sister, Mary.
In real life, tween actress Alison Arngrim, was a good kid leading a tough life marred with abuse and depression. But through Nellie, the angry little girl who didn’t hold anything back, Arngrim was able to work out a lot of her inner demons.
As a result, she’s grown into a thoroughly charming, truly funny, and incredibly compassionate grown-up, who as managed to sidestep all of the pitfalls that trip up most child stars.
Sure, being identified with the ringlet laden, mean girl on the Prairie for all those years took some time to embrace. But Arngrim has come to terms with the fact that she’ll always be Nellie and has decided to tell her story in her new best selling autobiography, Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson And Learned To Love Being Hated.
If you’ve already read Melissa Gilbert’s Prairie Tale or recently zipped through Melissa Sue Anderson’s memoir, The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life, don’t think you’ve heard it all. Alison’s book is a must read for any Little House fan–and we know you’re out there.
In part one of our exclusive interview, Alison talked about what inspired her to tell her story, how her book compares to the Melissas’ bios, and how surprised she’s been my her skyrocketing success on the best seller lists.
PASSIONISTAS: We know you did the one-woman show and that evolved into the book. What made you decided to finally write it?
ALISON: I've sort of been writing the book off and on. Looking back I first started really writing anything down about how I felt about being on the show really when Michael Landon died. There were so many things I wrote about Michael's death then. But then I just put it aside. I didn't know what it meant or what I would do with it... I was like, "I should write this down."
And then, yeah, when I started doing the show, I began talking about the show and I thought, "Well, I should write out the long version of these stories. I should start writing down what happened.” Because as we began to realize that being on Little House on the Prairie was more of a big deal than any of us in the cast thought it was. That it was this multi-national, cultural phenomenon that was affecting people in France and Argentina. I thought, "Okay, I've got to start writing down these experiences." I began to write more and more.
And it was weird because the show is more popular now than I think it was when it was on. When things sort of crossed over and the next thing you know there's going to be the musical and Melissa Gilbert's doing her book. Suddenly the interest in all things Prairie just escalated.
So when I met a literary agent who said, "You wouldn't happen to have a book to go with the show, would you?" I said, "Funny you should ask."
So I had already begun it and I guess it took about nine months after that to crank the rest out. And then it was a couple of months of actually cutting it down so it would fit in a 300-page book. Because seven years is a long time and I included some of my life before and after that. So I kind of wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica and had to really cut to get it to be 300 pages.
PASSIONISTAS: So you didn't write any of this down until the '90s, when Michael died? You didn't keep a diary as a kid? How did you remember everything?
ALISON: Oh, I'm one of those poor, deranged people who's cursed with a photographic memory. It's just awful. I have friends who go, "You not only remember what happened to you, but you remember what you were wearing and what you ate. Oh God, your insane."
And certain things are unforgettable. I mean, when was the last time you got put in an 1800s wheelchair and shoved down a hill. That makes an impression. It's a little hard to forget. Everyone remembers that episode. Ya, that's a sensation that doesn't leave you. And having that wig nailed onto my head. It still hurts. That's stuff you just don't forget.
ALISON: I think it does. Effusive would be, ya, I have been called that. It's weird. I think all three of the girls' books–Melissa Gilbert, Melissa Sue Anderson, and mine–weirdly and probably not fully intended by all the parties involved really do reflect our personalities. It's kind of like the joke's on us. Everyone came to their biographies for different reasons and with different approaches. And, I'm sure, some people get motivated to write a book like, "Well, this will be good promotion. I'll get TV work or I'll get money." I wrote a book to write a book. I don't know I've sort of been obsessed with the idea of writing a book for years.
And Melissa Gilbert's was a very cathartic experience because she wrote about her alcoholism and recovery. And she talked about her life a lot.
And then Melissa Sue, it's very weird, in interviews she says, "I never wanted to write a book." I don't know how you get from that to writing a book. I don't know. But then her book comes out and they do reflect our personalities.
Melissa Gilbert talks about her romantic entanglements but it becomes clear through the book and if you talk to her, that was a big part of her life. She's even admitted that the things where she took wrong turns in her life is when she put relationships with guys ahead of her sanity, her career, etc. And she did, she totally put men-folk ahead of her work and everything else–and to her detriment at times. And that does come out in her book so it does reflect her, she does tell her true story. And you read it, and she is funny, and you kind of go, "Her book is like Melissa Gilbert."
And then Melissa Sue's book, well, the criticism that people have when they meet Melissa Sue is they'll say, "Well, she doesn't see forthcoming with information. She doesn't like to talk about herself. She's very reserved. She seems kind of aloof. And she doesn't tell us about herself.” And you read her book and you go, "She's aloof and she doesn't tell me anything about herself in this book."
And then when people meet me they go, "Oh my God, Alison is completely crazy, she remembers every last freakin' little thing that happened in excruciating detail she talks a lot, and she's very emotional and effusive." And I guess that's in my book.
PASSIONISTAS: Have you heard from either one of them–have they read the book and have they reacted to it?
ALISON: Well Gilbert read it and she actually reviewed it and gave me a blurb for the back cover she liked it so much. And I just mailed her her signed copy the other day. She's finally back from the musical and she really, I keep calling her Liz Taylor of the prairie. She has totally messed up that back of hers. She had hurt her back early on in like the New Jersey rehearsals. And then during the run of the show, she kept having her back go out and kept getting rushed to the emergency room, put back together. And then when she went on break she saw this spinal specialist and said, “Ah, it's great. They fixed it. It was all messed up. It's fine.” And then it kept hurting. And she just told everyone a few days ago, "Okay, they went in and looked and my back's way more messed up than we thought it was. I actually broke something. And I have to have like surgery again. This time for sure."
Or, as I said on Twitter, "She's flat on her back and for once not in a good way."
So we're all taking soup and things to Melissa next week. So I sent her my book and I actually got her an arts and crafts book I'm getting her so she'll have activities while she's laying around the house.Ya, when she was in the hospital when she was a kid I brought her Colorforms, so. We have a long history of hanging out in hospitals together.
But I haven't heard from Melissa Sue. I know Melissa Sue knows some of the things in my book because the dude from TV Guide, when he interviewed me, had interviewed her and he actually called her back and read her sections from my book and called me back. He was totally trying to start some World War. But luckily, we were both pretty good about it… I said I thought when I got her book she'd let me and Melissa Gilbert both have it. I was kind of looking forward to it. But, no, no, she didn't. She was kind of tame. Now she has flat out said in interviews that she has never read Melissa Gilbert's book. And she refused to go see the musical. She said, "No. I don't intend to go see the musical." And, well, more than half the cast has been to see the musical.
PASSIONISTAS: Are you surprised by the success of the book?
ALISON: Oh, I'm floored. Now, of course, my husband and my agent and everybody else remotely involved at the publishers, everybody else is going, "You’re surprised. We're not surprised. You're the only one who was surprised. We all read this thing and freaked out and said, 'You do realize this is a really good book, right?'" And I was like, "Uh, I think it's good. I thought it was funny."
And then I went to #35 and then #30 on the NY Times Best Seller List. And the Wall Street Journal has me as #15 in Biography. And there's some other list, I don't even know what it's called, I don't know all these lists, that I'm insanely high on. I think it's like the list, the one that bookstores are ordered.
Okay, yesterday I went out to a bunch of bookstores to do what they call the stock signings. You go and sign some for when people want to buy an autographed copy and you're not there. When I did that in L.A., where I was having a signing, they always have like 20 or 30 set aside, but that was a couple of weeks ago. So I go out yesterday to some of these bookstores. I get there–they got five left, they got six left. One store, "We only got one left. We had two but we sold the other one." They had hardly any left for me to sign. I said, "Why don't you have any books?" They went, "We sold them all. We're reordering. We ran out." So they can't keep the bloody thing in stock and I'm getting emails and Facebooks from people saying, "I went to my store and they were sold out. I can't get your book."
PASSIONISTAS: We both read it in a day.
ALISON: Well, I like to do kind of cliffhangers. And, I remember, my British friend, Barnaby, who's a librarian who really loved it. He said, "I feel like I'm at the movies, sitting eating popcorn. I'm like, 'What's gonna happen next?'"
When I wrote it I wanted it to be exciting. I love to read. I love to read and I like when people go into wonderful detail. And I love to read something and wonder, "What on earth is going to happen next?" That's what I like. So I tried to get that in there. And I've had people call me and say they've had to lock themselves in their bathroom because they started laughing really loud and they couldn't stop reading and it was the middle of the night and they didn't want to wake people up. So apparently half of America is locked in the toilet with my book.
To find out when Alison will be in your town on her book tour visit her Facebook fan page.