Photo: Rock Bottom Remainders
Without Kathi Kamen Goldmark, there would be no Rock Bottom Remainders. Back in 1992, she had the big idea to bring together a select group of professional writers and amateur musicians to perform at the American Booksellers Association convention. There was no audition process, and anyone who volunteered was immediately disqualified. What began as one performance has lasted for 18 years.
When not fronting the Rock Bottom Remainders or the all-star jam band Los Train Wreck, Goldmark is the co-author (alongside her husband, Sam Barry) of the aspiring writers' read Write That Book Already!. Her previous books include And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You, The Great Rock & Roll Joke Book and Mid-Life Confidential: the Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America with Three Chords and an Attitude.
With her husband, Sam Barry, she writes Author Enablers, a monthly advice column in BookPage. A 2008 Women's National Book Association Award winner and 2007 San Francisco Library Laureate, Goldmark is also the president of Don't Quit Your Day Job Records, where the band recorded their one and only album, Stranger Than Fiction.
Before she went on the road, we asked her these 20 questions:
1. What book had the biggest impact on you? Why?
As a child, I loved A Hole Is to Dig by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, especially the sentence, "Mashed potatoes are to give everybody enough." As an adult, I loved Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It is the most soulful, musical, sensual book I have ever read—and anyone who can create magic realism with the I Love Lucy show has to be a genius.
2. Have you ever read or written a perfect sentence? What was it?
I wish I had written "Mashed potatoes are to give everybody enough."
3. What was the oddest job you ever had?
I once worked as a paid professional hippie in a little cable car–shaped booth near Fisherman's Wharf. It was the summer of 1969, and all of the tourists wanted hippies, but all the real hippies had left town. I sold love beads and incense and got my photo taken with hundreds of vacationing families.
4. How did you start playing music?
It wasn't so much that I wanted to be like Joan Baez and Judy Collins—I wanted to be them, both at the same time if possible. I got a guitar and started taking lessons at age 14. I am still just about as good on guitar as I was then.
5. What would your theme song be?
"I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock & Roll" by Nick Lowe.
6. What is your favorite food?
Licorice and sushi, but not together.
7. Which individual has, for better or worse, had the single greatest influence on your life?
In an essay for Victoria Zackheim's anthology The Face in the Mirror, I wrote about my grandma Clara—a funny, open-minded woman who yodeled when she leaned outside to wash her windows and could make elaborate toys out of cardboard and library paste. My playfulness and creativity come from Clara. I wish I'd inherited her fashion sense and cooking and sewing skills too.
8. What is your greatest career coup?
Holding that first copy of my first novel was an indescribable joy. I've loved books my whole life and had made a career out of helping authors—then suddenly I was one. Delicious!
9. What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome or challenge you have ever faced?
I am lucky to have a warm, supportive family as well as a wide circle of friends, so I've had emotional resources to fall back on during life's inevitable roller coaster rides. It's a constant struggle to stay disciplined and focused on my writing and not second-guess the muse.
10. What characteristic do you admire most in others?
11. What talent would you most like to possess?
I wish I could sing like Etta James. And Merle Haggard.
12. What is your favorite film?
I could watch The Commitments (based on the novel by Roddy Doyle) again and again. That movie was one of the inspirations for starting the Remainders, and I even have a similar Wilson Pickett story from back in my punk-rock days.
13. What inspires you most?
In addition to the Rock Bottom Remainders, Sam and I are in another band called Los Train Wreck—and unlike the Remainders, LTW is actually a good band. We host a monthly jam in a San Francisco nightclub. The idea is that we set up and play for a few hours, and anyone who walks in the door can sign up to join us on a song or two.
A lot of accomplished musicians stop by each month. But every once in a while, someone steps shyly to the microphone maybe for the first time ever, pulls a song from some deep place and rips it up. You can feel the whole room falling in love. I get all gooey every time.
14. What is your greatest fear?
I worry about ending up broke and alone.
15. What gives you hope about the world today?
My son, daughter-in-law, step-kids and my nieces and nephews. They are brilliant, aware, hilarious, and I love trying to keep up with them on Facebook.
16. What is one thing you have always wanted?
To be effortlessly slim.
17. What is your most valued possession?
I have a little hammer that unscrews to reveal different-size screwdrivers inside one another, kind of like those painted nesting Russian dolls. You can get them all over, but I love mine, and I think it's the first thing I'd grab if the house were on fire. I love my beautiful old Martin guitar, which I've had since my 16th birthday. It's even been stolen a few times, and it's always found its way back to me.
18. What is one book you've been meaning to read?
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer...and I wouldn't mind another crack at A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of Definitions by Ruth Krauss.
19. What is your secret guilty pleasure?
I often work at home, and when I do I like to take a break at 4 p.m., curl up on my office sofa with a big mug of tea and watch The Oprah Show. And no, I'm not just saying that.
20. How would you like to be remembered?
As the person who recorded musical duets by Jessica Mitford and Maya Angelou and Norman Mailer's "Alimony Blues." I'd also like to be remembered for my own creative contributions, for being a quirky artist in my own right.
Learn more about the Rock Bottom Remainders
What does Kathi Kamen Goldmark say about the band?
Published on April 21, 2010