A Mother and Daughter Odyssey
Jennifer Coburn and daughter Katie
Most of Jennifer Coburn’s books dwell in humor,
but her favorite is a memoir of the times spent
with daughter Katie in months-long adventures in Europe
By Delle Willett
Jennifer Coburn has a story for everything, a talent she inherited from her father, who could make a story out of tying his shoelaces. And he did all the asides and all the parts with perfect accents. Jen does, too.
She’s used her story-telling skills to create seven books, inspired by an acquaintance, friend, family member, or circumstance.
For example, her first book on the market, “The Wife of Reilly,” a story about a woman who wants to find a new wife for her husband so she can marry an old college beau, was inspired by a friend who called Jen one day and said, “I can’t stand my husband today.”
They discussed her plan to find him a new wife and buy homes next to each other, where they could continue raising their kids together. Regarding the wife search, the friend said, “I suppose I could take care of that since I take care of everything else in this damn house.”
While it was just fantasizing on her friend’s part, and gave them both a good laugh, Jen saw the story potential and ran with it.
Jen’s first book, “Tales from the Crib,” which she started when her daughter Katie was born, began as a series of 1,000- to 2,000-word parenting essays, and turned into a full-blown novel about how one baby can bring people together — so they can drive each other nuts.
“Queen Gene” is a follow-up book to “Tales from the Crib,” which takes the reader on a wild ride through the world of way over-the-top kiddie birthday parties, puppy psychotherapy and performance-art weddings with a family so nutty it will make you appreciate your own.
“Field of Schemes” came from Jen’s first-hand experience of having a child who played club soccer for many years. It’s about getting a fresh start in a town where soccer is king and parents are far, far too involved in their children’s sports.
“Reinventing Mona” is about a fictional character playing out a scenario Jen thought would be fun — trying to do an entire life makeover and failing miserably, all while helping transform the lives of everyone else around.
This is her least favorite and her best-seller. Her favorite and worst seller is “Tales from the Crib.”
“Which just shows you I cannot call the market,” she said.
”Brownie Points” is about a boy who wants to become a Girl Scout. The idea came about by chance while Jen and her daughter were eating lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, observing 50 Boy Scouts herding in the door. And Katie mentioned that a boy she knew wanted to join Girl Scouts instead of Boy Scouts. The story takes the reader on a hilarious journey as the boy’s family faces the fight of their lives and, in the process, discovers what it means to be family.
Jen’s most recent book, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” is a memoir of travels to Europe with her daughter, Katie, from age 8 to 16. The inspiration for the travels came from Jen’s wish to leave Katie with special memories of their times together through the years. Each of their four, month-long summer trips to Europe began and ended in Paris.
Jen’s mother suggested she write the book, her best-seller to date. During their European vacations, Jen and Katie, now 19, took lots of photos but no notes. So Jen used their photos to jog her memory of sights, sounds, smells and situations.
Jen and Katie have fun with these memories: Remember your surprise when Dr. Groovy told you to pull up your shirt? Remember that English pot roast that tasted like a shoe? I drool every time I think of those Nutella crepes on the Left Bank. Remember singing folksongs with those Korean tourists? How many hours were we stuck at the train station? Remember getting lost in our hotel in Las Casas Juderia? How many meringue puffs did we eat? Wasn’t that sliced octopus yummy!
Will there be a follow up to “We’ll Always Have Paris”? Well maybe, but not right away. Katie is now 19 and a freshman at M.I.T., studying brain and cognitive sciences. This summer she will be working at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla.
By day Jen is a freelance writer for various magazines and newspapers. By night she’s a book author, working from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. “That’s the time I actually feel best. I would never survive a 9-to-5 job. I have nothing to say, nothing worth listening to at 9 in the morning,” she said. At the moment, with no book in progress, the lights will be out late at night.
Jen’s mother, Carol, had her in improv and acting classes since forever. And of course, she has a story about that. One of her classmates was
“I adored him. He was a lovely, lovely guy, very unpretentious and very unassuming. But if you told me he would be the most successful person in the class I wouldn’t have believed it because there were so many amazingly talented kids.”
His mom came to Parents’ Day at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre. “When I saw her I just assumed that she was just another elegant Manhattan mom, I mean, really, whose mother is Gloria Vanderbilt?
“And I told Anderson that his mother looked exactly like Gloria Vanderbilt. (Her face was everywhere as Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were in their heyday.) But it never occurred to me that it was actually her and I said something stupid like, ‘But wouldn’t you love to have that kind of money?’”
He just laughed and said, “That would be nice,” which she says was very telling. “He wasn’t being coy. He was just a regular kid. And the fact of the matter was that he didn’t have that kind of money — she did.”
When Jen, 49, graduated from the University of Michigan in 1988 with a degree in communications, she headed straight for San Diego, avoiding returning to her hometown in New York and getting back into a groove she didn’t want to be in. She arrived with nothing but a credit card and an offer from a family acquaintance to sleep on his couch for two weeks in Mission Beach.
In time, she joined an improv class. This time there was another young man in her class who was also lovely and sweet, there to work on overcoming shyness. It worked, at least enough for him to propose to Jen on stage in front of everyone in the middle of a show. His name is William O’Nell and he’s a self-employed attorney with a specialty in insurance law. He and Jen have been married to each other since 1993.
Expanding on her story-telling skills, Jen also experimented for a while with standup comedy. After writing her own material she would rehearse one hour for every minute on stage. “I was so, so afraid of standing up there and blanking that I over prepared,” she said.
“I walked in my neighborhood for exercise and people must have thought I was crazy ‘cuz I’m walking around moving my lips and I don’t have any ear buds in, but obviously speaking and gesturing with my hands. And in the shower, the pool — where I can’t even hear myself, but I just kinda visualized how it goes.”
“I’m glad I did it because it answered questions for me, but I don’t feel a burning desire to do it again… Well, I might do it again if I have something funny to say. I’m just as happy at a dinner party telling a story with some friends,” she said.
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