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Book World Live: Amy Dickinson, Author of 'The Mighty Queens of Freeville'

The Mighty Queens of Freeville
The Mighty Queens of Freeville

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Amy Dickinson
Syndicated Advice Columnist and Author
Monday, March 9, 2009; 1:00 PM

Every day, millions of Americans turn to Amy Dickinson's syndicated column Ask Amy for straightforward advice on relationships, family and life in general. In a new memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, which was reviewed in the Washington Post, Dickinson shares how she learned to give such good advice -- thanks to the love and support of her female relatives in her small hometown in New York's Finger Lake region. Dickinson was online Monday, March 9 to discuss her book and her column, and to explain just what makes someone a Mighty Queen.

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A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live for discussions based on Washington Post book reviews. For more from Book World, read the daily Short Stack blog, subscribe to the weekly Book World podcast, and join the ongoing discussion in Dirda's Reading Room.

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Amy Dickinson: Hi all -- my name is Amy Dickinson and I write the syndicated advice column "Ask Amy." I also just published a memoir about my experience raising my daughter as a single parent, called, "The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them." For anyone interested in where my advice comes from -- this is the answer. My advice comes from my own values, my life experiences, and from the small-town where I grew up -- and from the people who raised me.

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Freising, Germany: London is perhaps the most cosmopolitan place on earth. How did living in London affect your small-town American perceptions and values?

Amy Dickinson: Mainly, I was homesick as heck all while I was living in London. I have lived in London, DC and Chicago -- and for me, all roads seem to lead me back home again. I am just temperamentally tuned toward smallness, I guess --- and enjoy a high school play as much as the theater on West End, which is a shame, I know. But it's me.

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Fort Lauderdale, Florida: What do you think of gay marriages?

Amy Dickinson: I think that any two consenting adults should be permitted to marry one another.

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Arlington, Va.: So I am reading Peggy Orenstein's "Schoolgirls," and while I haven't had a chance to read your book (I apologize), I wonder if you ever feel any conflict about the way in which women are assigned this caring, advice-giving role in society.

Men are absolved of responsibility for offering advice, being sensitive and aware of others needs. I felt really unsettled about that this morning in particular (as one who gives advice freely and frequently). We give ourselves credit for these attributes, but it perpetuates a stereotype.

Do you address that in your book at all?

Amy Dickinson: My book is a memoir. It's the telling of my own personal story. But I disagree with you that society assigns women advice-giving roles; when we take these roles, we assign them to ourselves. I do think that women are generally accustomed to sharing their feelings and their points of view with one another. Interestingly, when I am on NPR's Talk of the Nation (a radio call-in show) the lines are always most crowded with men. Women tend to hang back in that context, for some reason.

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Apologizing: Hi Amy,

You frequently run letters from people who disagree with things some of your advice, but you never say that you're sorry or you were wrong. You will frequently defend your original point of view, of do some version of "different strokes for different folks", but never even an "I agree with you that I could have... ".

Do you not believe that you might sometimes be wrong in your first approach to a situation? If you do believe that sometimes you're wrong, don't you think that demonstrating taking ownership of that and either agreeing with the writer or apologizing for taking a wrong approach is a valuable skill to demonstrate to your readers?

Amy Dickinson: I frequently do run letters from people disagreeing with my advice, and I love those letters. I think people should have their say, and that's what's best about my column. I see these letters as an opportunity to air opposing points of view -- and yes, opportunities to refine my own positions. If someone is right and I am wrong, I say so -- and I have apologized when I thought I was wrong, though honestly I don't think I've made huge blunders -- not yet, anyway, though the day is still young...

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I'll bite!: So what is a Mighty Queen and how do you become one?

Amy Dickinson: "Mighty Queen" is the honorific my daughter, Emily, assigned to the women in our family who are all funny, opinionated, and snappy with a comeback. Mainly, I think that a Mighty Queen is any woman in charge of her life who loves her family, knows how to be in a community, and who can whip up a casserole from time to time. I have a whole checklist called "You know you're a Mighty Queen if..." on my book's web site: www.themightyqueensoffreeville.com. It's hilarious.

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Crofton, Md.: Who knew? In addition to your fun advice columns, you are a wonderful writer. I loved your book. I was especially moved by your story about introducing your daughter to God. Do you have any plans to write other books?

Amy Dickinson: Thank you for reading and enjoying my book. It was almost as fun to write as my story was to live. I think of it as a real celebration of ordinary people and ordinary life and I'm gratified that my story resonates with readers. I'm working on another book -- this time a childhood memoir of my time growing up on our failed dairy farm. In my next book, cows will be milked, and unfortunately -- eaten.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Were you always the type of person who could analyze situations and give good advice? Somehow I imagine you like Lucy with a booth selling advice for a nickel. When did you realize you were so good at advising others?

Amy Dickinson: Thank you for imagining me as Lucy Van Pelt. I once played her in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," though that's the closest I ever got to becoming a cartoon character.

Actually, I am more inclined to ask for and take advice than give it -- I think it's because I'm the youngest in a large family. I've always been the recipient of much advice -- all of it unsolicited, of course.

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Lansing, Mich.: My sister and I grew up in Freeville, too. I attended 2nd grade at Freeville Elementary. We often ate chicken barbecue from the Methodist Church. We knew many families in Freeville. Do you mind sharing your mother's name, as we think she might have been of about the same era as our mother?

Amy Dickinson: My mother is a Genung. My family settled this region in 1790. I am sitting on Main Street, at this very moment, in fact.

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Washington, D.C.: In my family we have a "Matriarch" -- of course this is a New England family, so it's more like "Maytreeaaaahk." It was my great-aunt, now it's my dad's cousin, and my cousins and I talk sometimes about who's likely to assume the mantle in our generation. Basically the Matriarch gets to be very opinionated about everyone and proclaim family pride whenever possible. Something like your Mighty Queens?

Amy Dickinson: My family is slightly flinty -- we don't like to express a lot of pride, though we do feel it, of course. My mother is one of four daughters and so they have to share matriarch duties. Sometimes, it's not pretty.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Do you ever read the online "comments" on your column in the Washington Post?

Amy Dickinson: I am privy to many many comments about my work, not only on the Washington Post's web site, but also on my home paper, the Chicago Tribune -- and the myriad other papers that carry my column. Honestly, I don't engage in perusing the comments section too much because I have a job to do and that is to answer letters in the published space.

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Central Virginia: This is just a comment to let you know how much I love your advice. You make me feel as if I know you and your advice is always current and down to earth. You always give me something to think about. Thank you!

Amy Dickinson: You do know me. I'm right there on the page. I leave a little bit of me out -- because no one needs that much of me. But I appreciate the fact that readers feel they know me; that's part of the idea. I want for people to know who I am and where I'm from, and where I'm coming from. That's the exchange I engage in for people honoring me with their own stories.

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Hagerstown, Md.: What type of pressure do you feel knowing the answers you provide could greatly impact someone's life -- and potentially in a negative way? Everyone has their own way of interpreting responses and relating to their own situation.

Amy Dickinson: I like this question because it touches on how seriously I take the work I do. However, if I worried too much about how my advice was interpreted, I wouldn't be able to get out of bed and weigh in about people's issues. I can't imagine my advice negatively impacting someone's life, mainly because I feel I most often urge people to be respectful, compassionate, kind and clear.

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Kirkland, Wash.: No question. Amy, I enjoy your column and very level headed responses. Good job, good work.

Amy Dickinson: Why, thank you! I love the idea that people think I'm "level headed." I'm going to pass that right along to my mother, who thinks I'm a wreck, part of the time. But I get my temperament from my family and from the atmosphere of the small town where I grew up. In little towns where people don't always have lots of external resources, they tend to be practical and level-headed problem solvers -- and good community members.

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Cleveland Park: Hi, Amy, just wanted to say that I am constantly impressed with your good sense, compassion, and humor, which are evident in your responses in your column. I usually don't read that sort of column but I started reading your column after I discovered that we have a mutual friend. So keep up the good work and I hope you are enjoying your (relatively) new marital status.

Amy Dickinson: Lordy. Thank you. And thank you for mentioning the fact that I got married recently. After 17 years of being a single mother. Did I mention I was single for 17 years? That's 17 years. I absolutely love being married. I get to experience a whole new family and yet another fresh start in a life full of fresh starts. Oh -- and did I mention I was single for 17 years? That's a lot of blind dates. That's a lot of bad dates. Singlehood was not pretty -- at least the way I did it. I've settled in very well and am lucky lucky lucky. I think it helps to be on the verge of elderly when I found my grand romance. Being so old means you do things like appreciate the fact that no one needs hip replacement.

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Running in the family: Is your daughter also a good advice giver?

Amy Dickinson: My daughter is brilliantly reserved and is in general very wise and lovely. I love the way she conducts her own life. She's exactly the sort of person others confide in because she is quiet, discreet and nice as pie. Does she give good advice? She does. But (like me) she doesn't walk around telling people what to do. At least I hope we don't do that.

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Soo....: What advice do you have for those of us who are still single? What were the best lessons you learned in those 17 years?

Amy Dickinson: Never buy a new outfit for a blind date. Never go to a movie on a first date. Never sleep with someone on the first date. Don't order the shellfish. Meet online potentials for coffee first. Don't do the e-mail getting-to-know you thing too intensely. Don't turn down any opportunity.

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Binghamton, N.Y.: Hi, Amy! You mentioned that your family has been in upstate New York since 1790. Are you descended from Senator Daniel Dickinson, who has a town named for him here in Broome County?

Amy Dickinson: I like to think I'm descended from a long line of pirates and nincompoops. I can't imagine I'm descended from a senator, though if he was also a rodeo clown, I could imagine it.

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Amy Dickinson: Little Freeville NY has had a steady population of around 450 people for 200 years or so, and so I've been amazed when I travel around the country to meet many people who have connections to such a small place. In Raleigh, NC, someone came to a book signing waving my high school yearbook! Yikes. I wasn't so thrilled to see that old photograph of me, the one where I look like a man in drag, but otherwise, that has been a lot of fun.

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Ex husband query : Why do you go to such great lengths to protect the identity of your fairly skeevy exhusband? Is it b/c he's still in broadcast journalism? It was very gracious, really.

Thanks, and we really enjoyed your talk and reading at Politics and Prose!

Amy Dickinson: The reason I protect my ex's identity is that he isn't skeevy. He's a nice person, and I hope my book reflects that. He just ended up not liking me and leaving the marriage -- and me -- but that's not a crime.

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What state?: I've read the Post review, and checked on Amazon.com, but nowhere is there a mention of what state Freeville is in! I'd really like to know.

Amy Dickinson: Freeville is in Upstate New York, which is rusty and worn out and pummelled by endless winters. But it's lovely, too, and it's my home -- so I love it.

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Lansing, Michigan: I was born in Freeville, New York and lived there until I went to college. Part of my father's business was located in the town. My family used to enjoy the chicken barbecues at the Methodist Church, I attended second grade at Freeville's elementary school, and I graduated from Dryden High School. One summer in college I worked at the small animal clinic at Cornell's Vet School in the business office, and was the person who had to present the bills to owners for treatment of their cats and dogs. Thanks to Amy for helping me relive so many childhood memories. Helen (Sadd) Dashney

Amy Dickinson: Cornell's fabled Vet school has a prominent place in my book and in my life. We hosted vet students doing their large animal practicum on our farm -- thus sending many prospective large animal vets screaming right back to the small animal clinic, no doubt. My mother was once told, "Farming. That sounds exciting." "Well, it is the way we do it," she replied.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Amy, I just wanted to dispel some gender stereotypes: my wonderful, wonderful husband, a retired and somewhat distinguished gentleman loves your column and I believe he reads it first when he brings the Post into the house in the morning. You have inspired him to want to start an advice column business himself! I'm looking forward to giving him your book for our anniversary next week!

Amy Dickinson: I frequently hear from men that they read and enjoy my column; sometimes they act a little embarrassed by it, though. I envision all sorts of men standing in their jammies, reading my column on the front stoop before bringing the paper in to the house.

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Amy Dickinson: One of the most gratifying aspects of writing my story is that it has become one of those books women read, enjoy, and pass around to one another. I think my story resonates with people because I didn't have any particular advantages in life -- in fact, some might think I had some disadvantages. But it's a story of prevailing through some hardship -- and doing my best to make the most out of what I do have. It's also a story about going home, celebrating relationships, and being the best sister, daughter, and mother I know how to be. It's not one of those edgy memoirs where the protagonist runs away from rehab -- it's a story where things more or less work out. And that's how most of us live our lives, I think. We do our best.

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Chicago shout-out!: Was it something we did? What can we do to get you back? :-)

Amy Dickinson: I'm headed back to Chicago tomorrow, in fact. I'm there for about a week each month, taping "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" and flying the flag at the Tribune's office. I love Chicago. It's not you -- it's me.

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Men reading the column (San Francisco): That's how I read Dan Savage! This column I only read online, because there's no dead tree Post in San Francisco.

Amy Dickinson: And by the way, how much do we love Dan Savage? Soooo much.

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Washington, D.C.: I like your columns. Regarding Freeville's location, how far is this town from Lincoln's Team of Rivals member William Seward's hometown of Auburn? Are you close to Ithaca?

Amy Dickinson: Freeville is 9 miles from Ithaca and about 20 miles from Auburn. Auburn is not only home to Seward, but also Harriet Tubman -- and the Auburn State Prison, of course.

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Amy Dickinson: The hour flew by. I think of you all now as my new best friends. And I thank you so much. Now go and call your moms and tell them how much you love their tuna-noodle casserole. Forgive your enemies. Climb out of debt. And keep in touch.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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