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Barnard Sets the Stage for a Creative Life

The day her debut novel landed on bookstore shelves, actress Lauren Graham sat down for a Q & A with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anna Quindlen to talk about—well, everything: work, writing, life, relationships, New York City, and even their Barnard days. Graham’s book-launch event featuring not one but two famed Barnard alumnae packed the upper level of the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, with several disappointed fans turned away.

Graham is perhaps best known for her role as the quirky, fast-talking single mom in the TV show Gilmore Girls. She currently stars in the NBC drama Parenthood, which follows the ups and downs of a sprawling California family. But her new book, Someday, Someday, Maybe (Ballatine Books, 2013), about an aspiring actress trying to make it in New York City, is her first serious foray into writing.

Quindlen started the Q & A by saying how glad she was to meet Graham in person. “For a long time I felt like there was barely one degree of separation between us,” she began. “We both went to Barnard,”—this drew a loud cheer from the audience of almost 500, in which there were several Barnard alumnae and students. “You were in the movie version of my novel One True Thing with Meryl Streep and Renée Zellweger,” to which Graham responded that the part was one of her first big acting roles. And when Quindlen called Graham’s book “absolutely phenomenal,” Graham fell serious; there is nothing funny about receiving such praise from the grand dame of novel writing. “I could die now,” said Graham.

Graham arrived at Barnard as a transfer student. She started out studying acting at NYU, but its conservatory-oriented program didn’t demand enough reading and, she recalled, “I felt at a loss without schoolwork.” After that, Barnard was the only place she considered. “Barnard had a theatre major, and I wanted to stay in New York.” She began a sprint to graduation, the speed of which she now regrets. “I was so ambitious and driven and dying to get started, I crammed four years of requirements into three,” thinking “the career I want is right outside my window.” Still, she said, “I somehow found time to do a play and musicals and usher at theatres.”

Graham’s favorite part of Barnard was singing with the Metrotones, Columbia’s then-new all-female a cappella group, “a crazy mix of people.” Two Metrotones members are still her best friends, including Kathy Ebel ’89, a television writer who just published her own first novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue. (See Barnard Magazine, Winter 2013.) Ebel attended Graham’s New York book launch, where Graham said that in Someday, Someday, Maybe, the character Jane, whom Graham describes as the “sassy best friend,” recalls Ebel. “That’s really what college is ultimately about. Who did you meet, who you then write the rest of your life story with? There were some amazing people [in Metrotones]. I traveled on weekends, we were sort of a sorority,” Graham recalled. “It was a huge part of my social life.”

Books have always been another huge part of Graham’s life, and she ended up majoring in English, not theatre, at Barnard. “It felt practical and I wanted to be reading the literature I was reading anyway. The department was so strong— it was the right move.”

After Barnard, Graham took odd jobs to pay rent like her book’s heroine, Franny Banks. But she realized, “I could spend years doing this, so I got into a graduate program. I had a full scholarship which was the only way I could do it.” She earned her MFA in theatre at Southern Methodist University in 1992. Then followed TV appearances, including recurring roles on the mid-1990s sitcoms Caroline in the City and News Radio. She was cast as leads in two other 90s shows, neither of which lasted a full season. Before the Gilmore Girls pilot aired, she learned the show was slotted for Thursday night. “And I was like ‘Wait, opposite Friends?’ We’re going to get cancelled! I laughed,” she said.

But the show developed a devoted following, earning critical acclaim not only for the program, but for Graham herself. It was perhaps the perfect role for a voracious reader; her dialogue was peppered with myriad cultural and literary references. “The amount of speaking and memorizing was huge. But you want a character who speaks to your strengths, and I felt like there was a great overlap of sensibility for me with that kind of very verbal, comedy-drama mix.” Graham said she misses the show’s snappy banter, which was delivered at a faster-than-normal pace, but added that doing Gilmore Girls took considerable stamina. “I don’t know if I could do it now. A 12-hour day was a short day.”

In comparison, Parenthood provides Graham with stretches of time. As part of an ensemble cast of several main characters, she often goes hours or days without being on set. Other actors with that much downtime, she joked, might “go get a massage.” But Graham needs creative outlets; “It has been hard to not work every day, so that drove me to figure out something to do with the time.” She considered writing a memoir or humorous personal essays, but decided “I don’t want to write about myself. It feels too personal. But I’ll do the fictional version, and I’m interested in the world of show biz as I’ve seen it, with its beats of success and failure.”

At the Barnes & Noble event Quindlen asked Graham: “Someone once said to me that the two most perilous and challenging lines of work are being an actor and being a writer. So now you’re one of the few people...who’s done both. Why did you want to do this?”

Graham laughed, “I kept saying to friends and family: ‘Whose idea was this? Why didn’t I pick up a nice instrument, a new language, a craft?’ Something that isn’t so vulnerable. But I was a voracious reader as a child and I think it’s part of the reason I ended up as an actor. There was nothing more important in our house than a good story. My father was an excellent storyteller and I lived in the world of fiction...a world as real to me as my own in some ways.”

—By Abigail Beshkin
—Photograph by Dorothy Hong