In Nobody Will Tell You This But Me (Knopf, Apr.), Kalb channels her opinionated grandmother and celebrates their bond.
Why did you write in the voice of your dead grandmother, Bobby Bell?
I’ve been hearing my grandmother’s voice in my head since I was a young child, I think by her own design—whether it was something like, “wear an undershirt, you’re going to catch your death” or “you can’t possibly be wearing black to this wedding.” When she passed away (in 2017 at age 90), I was surprised by how present she still felt. There was really no other way to tell her life story than in her own voice, in her own words, as best I could.
The book contains intriguing family tales, including some about your grandmother’s own mother, a Jewish immigrant who came to the U.S. alone at age 12. How did your grandmother share these stories with you?
I started writing the book after my grandmother passed away, so I wasn’t able to consult with her, of course, while I was writing. But my grandmother spent my life telling me family stories. She would tell them ad nauseam, almost as if to drill them into my head, so that maybe I would one day repeat them.
You write for Jimmy Kimmel Live! and the New Yorker. How did writing this book compare to other writing you’ve done?
I’ve written in other people’s voices throughout my career—the voice of a magazine or a talk show host. There’s no character and voice I know better and feel more passionately about than my grandmother’s. In a way, this was like writing for the show I’ve always wanted to write for, which is the Bobby Bell show. It came naturally. It was the most fun I’ve had writing, and it was the most painful experience, too, because I missed her. There were times when my husband would come in after I had finished a chapter and I would have tears streaming down my face. This happened frequently, to the point that he started knocking.
What’s the best advice your grandmother ever gave you?
It was the advice her zayde gave her. When the earth is cracking behind you, put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. I can’t tell you how many times that mantra has carried me forward. And the second best advice was: if you find a lipstick that looks good on you, buy all of them, because it’ll get discontinued and you’ll never forgive yourself.
What’s the worst advice?
She once told me not to go camping. It’s freezing at night, she said, and you’ll get pneumonia. Well, I went camping and got bronchitis. But I married the guy I went camping with, so things worked out.