March 1, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Leslie Lehr '82
By Jason Ng
Mother, writer, survivor. These are among the words to describe award-winning author Leslie Lehr '82 who overcame breast cancer and had recently released her personal memoir, A Boob’s Life. In her memoir, Leslie examines America’s obsession with the female body and how this craze affected her life and women in our culture today. She joins us to talk about her journey becoming a writer, what writing means to her, and her thoughts on how her writing and filmmaking paths converge with A Boob’s Life, which is currently being developed into a series by Salma Hayek for HBO Max. Leslie won the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Gold Medal prize for her novel 66 Laps, and she will serve as Executive Producer on the series adaptation of her memoir.
Despite beginning your career in film production, you’ve transitioned very smoothly to writing and have since authored several books. What prompted you to shift your focus towards writing?
Motherhood. As a freelancer with unpredictable hours, childcare was tricky. I’d been writing screenplays between shoots, and always had a draft in the drawer when I was a staff production manager, so this was my chance to take it seriously.
Having written both novels and screenplays, do you have a different mindset for when you start to work on a book as opposed to writing a script?
No. I always start with story structure. Second, I have to visualize a scene in my head before I can write it down. A script is a blueprint for the crew, so I have to invent the story clearly, but with a novel, I’m the crew and get to create the entire world. My writing style is clearly inspired by writing scenes. In fact, the judges who awarded my first novel, 66 Laps, a prize, remarked on my “spare prose”. Most importantly, I try to be the camera for readers and avoid using internal dialogue as a crutch. The biggest and most challenging difference between mediums is Point of View. Novels have dozens of possibilities, not only between characters, but how much in their heads you want to get.
What motivates you to write?
Frustration. A Boob’s Life was prompted by my husband’s accusation that I’m obsessed with breasts. First, I was insulted. Then I realized it was true, and I had to learn why so I could explain to it everyone else. Words give me a big voice in a noisy world. When something is bothering me, it provides the passion for a particular story – that’s what it takes to keep my butt in the chair. (That and lot of popcorn.) It usually starts with an essay, in this case, the New York Times Modern Love column that Katie Couric narrated on NPR. That evolved to be a part of A Boobs’ Life, and now Salma Hayek is developing it as a comedy series for HBOMax. My next project is the same. I figure if something evokes that much emotion in me, it will likely do the same for others.
Motherhood is a prevalent theme across many of your books. What is it about motherhood that is so important to you that it informs your writing?
Motherhood gave me a lot to write about. I was forced out of this business that I loved and worked so hard to be part of, because of the overwhelming responsibility and lack of social support. My first book, Welcome to Club Mom, was a series of rants written in the middle of the night. The subtitle was The End of Life as You Know It. But the publisher considered that a downer, so I changed it to The Adventure Begins. And it did. My screenplay for Heartless was about mystery, my literary prize-winner, 66 Laps, is a sexy drama, Wife Goes On is a comedy, and What Mother Knows is a thriller. A bestselling crime novelist once asked when I was going to pick a major, since genre is the recipe for success. But exploring the challenges of contemporary women is my major. And motherhood is a very important part of my life. When the intersection of the sacred and the profane is at the nipple, motherhood provides enough desire and conflict to fuel whatever story I want to tell.
Can you tell us a bit about your memoir and how you arrived at writing about “women’s most popular body part” in American culture?
I never intended to write a memoir, especially not about my boobs. But I got out of the shower one night and saw that my nipples were cross-eyed. I was so upset that my husband accused me of being obsessed. We’d just moved to an ocean-view condo in Malibu as a reward for my survival from breast cancer, and this was our first date night. Sure, I was grateful to be alive. But I after all I’d been through, I still wanted my boobs to be perfect.
As a feminist, the idea of being obsessed by breasts was horrifying. I shut up and sat down to watch David Letterman’s star-studded farewell from The Late Show. Known as the intellectual comedian, he opened the show with a boob joke. (It was about J-Lo, who was producing the successful TV series he referenced). Clearly, I wasn’t the only one obsessed. I had to find out why. Date night was off. I started unpacking boxes of scrapbooks and realized I could track my entire life by my breasts.
From training bras to push up bras, hiding them to work, showing them to date, breastfeeding, breast implants, and breast cancer…issues of censorship, body image, beauty, health, and politics were surely related. I spent hours on the internet, but nothing connected the dots to show a woman’s entire life from this lens. What I did find was a perfect storm of events right just before I was born that made my life the perfect example of how this obsession affects us. I even worked in the industry that spread the obsession to the rest of the world. I knew that very night, this was my next book.
With A Boob’s Life now being developed into a series, your writing and film careers have come together. Did you ever envision this trajectory where your passion for writing and film would intersect?
Growing up, I never took writing seriously as a career. I wrote for fun, publishing articles here and there. I ran our high school TV station in Ohio, broadcasting to the local cable channel once a week, and came to college in California specifically to be in the film business. I was a TV production major here at USC, produced a student Emmy winner, and worked my way up freelancing. I was frustrated by the movies getting made, so I wrote scripts between jobs, but couldn’t get an agent. I was a woman, and my main characters were women. I had two humorous parenting books published before my first screenplay sale - to a female director making her first indie film. Heartless was made into a very profitable film that was on cable and screened overseas for a decade. But I still couldn’t get an agent. One actually asked, “Did you write that all by yourself?”
Then my debut novel, 66 Laps, won a big literary prize. That’s when I decided to write more books and try to adapt them into films. I ghost wrote a book to pay for an MFA – for credentials to teach full time if writing didn’t work out. I pitched my next novel, Wife Goes On, as a book and as a script. Both sold, but the production company refused to acknowledge the book, so they were separate projects. The Writers’ Strike halted the production, but I got in the WGA, so I counted it as a win. After writing the thriller, What A Mother Knows, I immediately wrote the screenplay adaptation. But I was in treatment for breast cancer then and couldn’t get out to pitch it. The analytical side of my brain recovered from chemo quickly, so my work as a writing consultant was thriving. But the creative side of my brain was foggy through years of meds. Then one night, I got out of the shower, saw my boobs were crooked… and started A Boob’s Life. A producer snatched it up before I even had a book deal. Salma Hayek said she was “obsessed” with it and wanted to produce through her company, Ventanarosa, who now has a first-look deal with HBOMax. And here we are. I’m not writing the pilot, but I’m Executive Producer, so I have seat at the table. Meanwhile, I’m half-way through a new novel. Looking back, my career seems planned, but it was necessity. If you love what you do, you keep doing it.
A memoir is a very personal project, so was there any hesitation for you to turn a part of your life into a form of media for everyone to watch?
Of course! But every artistic medium is a translation. The ideas in my head have to be translated whether it’s words on the page or actors on a screen. Leslie is a character on the TV series, adapted to spread my message to many people as possible. The book is my baby. Please read A Boob’s Life for the real story - the one that inspired so many people, like Salma Hayek and HBO Max, to bring it to the screen.
How did your student experience at SCA help to prepare you for your post-grad journey towards becoming a filmmaker and writer?
I was here when the film department was in shacks beyond the arch graffitied “Reality Ends Here.” Our reality was that the TV annex was off campus. It was a challenge to coordinate equipment and crew and editing time and classes. There was no networking or job office, and it was tricky being one of the few females in a world of dudes. But I learned all about production and how to hustle. When I had my first PA job on the Paramount lot, it was a challenge running between departments on different sides of the lot. I didn't know anyone, and it was tricky being one of the few females in a business of dudes. But I knew all about production, and how to hustle. My student experience prepared me well.
As for writing, I definitely picked up scene techniques from the late great Margaret Mehring that contributed to my prose style. And I do tend to keep a budget in mind. It was a good starting ground.
As a breast cancer survivor, how might you exercise your platform as a filmmaker and writer to raise awareness in women’s health?
By sharing my story, I hope to save lives and influence votes for laws supporting women. Breast cancer is a relatively new field of research and I’m alive because of it. Thanks to A Boob’s Life, I’m also working with Stand Up to Cancer, founded by producer Sherry Lansing and others including producer Laura Ziskin, who died from the disease. I also get to talk about breastfeeding – a topic that has less information in the Library of Congress than tomatoes. I get to speak out about body positivity, self-care, and the need for unilateral childcare to support families. Women’s health impacts everyone’s health. Boobs are my entry.
What are your words of advice for writers and filmmakers who are thinking about working on something personal and close to their own lives?
“Be afraid, be very afraid,” as Geena Davis said in The Fly. Honestly, I never intended to expose myself this way. But there was no other way to find answers and tell this story. If you find yourself in this position, consult a lawyer. There are plenty of free seminars where you can ask questions. Ask for permission from private individuals. Consider your family. Change names for privacy, and to protect the innocent – often that will be you. But what do you have to hide? We get one life. Why not say something that matters, to make the world a better place? A Boob’s Life covers sixty years and funnels into a cry for intersectional feminism, for women and men to be respected equally no matter their color, race, gender, mental or physical ability. If it takes telling a story about my boobs, so be it.
For more information about Leslie's works, including A Boob's Life, visit www.leslielehr.com