Homecoming Q&A: Laura Pedersen
Buffalo Homecoming staff report
Author and humorist Laura Pedersen comes from a lineage of Western New York writers. She has written a number of fiction and nonfiction novels, as well as children’s literature and was a former columnist for the New York Times.
Pedersen now lives in New York City. She was raised in Amherst and in 1983 graduated from Sweet Home High School before heading off to New York University. Her career started in finance and, at the age of 20, she was the youngest person to ever have a seat on the American Stock Exchange.
Her book “Play Money,” published in 1991 with author F. Peter Model, documented her experiences in the sector.
Pedersen is the current president of the Authors Guild Foundation and received an honorary degree from Canisius College in 2013. Her latest works are a children’s book titled "Dana Digs In" and a collection of essays entitled "A Theory of Everything Else.”
“Buffalo Gal,” another novel that was published in 2018, is a memoir about growing up in Western New York and her family that touches on the region’s history.
What sparked your interest in writing?
I was raised in a vortex of words. My grandfather wrote for several Buffalo newspapers, my uncle worked at the Courier-Express, my aunt was a copy girl at the Courier-Express before entering teaching, and my father wrote our church newsletter. In school, I liked passing my friends notes to try and make them laugh – same with my teachers and administrators (although that backfired on occasion).
Do you stay in contact with friends and family that are still in Western New York?
Constantly. I was there recently and brought back the most amazing fruits and vegetables from George’s Produce Market on Wehrle Drive. My Manhattan neighbors love me for my corn and tomato deliveries. And the WNY watermelon is so much better because the area gets cool at night – something to do with making sugar sweeter. Anyway, thanks to the produce, my NYC neighbors never complain about my dogs barking.
My mom lives in Getzville, an aunt and uncle still live in the area, and I have my own room at my best friend Mary’s house in Amherst. I don’t even need to pack a toothbrush.
I’m coming back soon because Russell Ram, a Buffalo artist and my good friend, is having a retrospective show of his work starting on Oct. 18.
What are some of your favorite memories from growing up?
I have so many memories that I’ve written three books about them. In my youth I loved skating at the Amherst Recreation and Community Center, ski club, and playing soccer at Sweet Home.
My family went to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, and the church always had something going on, whether it was a picnic, camping trip, or marching to support initiatives. You just had to be careful when you saw the church advertise the word “party” since, oftentimes, it meant a work party of cleaning and painting, but those were fun too. My father was a talented folksinger at the church, also.
In hindsight, however, my memories are more thematic. In the 1970s, most people in the area had little disposable income and I recall how we made our own good times without consumer culture. I have distinct recollections of neighbors helping neighbors and teachers helping students without expecting any thanks or favors in return.
Often, you didn’t even know who had shoveled your driveway or left a bag of tomatoes on the porch. These were good lessons.
Where did the ideas for your new books come from?
That elusive holy grail of modern physics, “A Theory of Everything,” would explain the universe in a single set of equations. Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking tackled the problem during their lifetimes, and the quest continues today in laboratories around the world.
Leaving string theory, galaxy clusters and supersymmetry to the quantum computer and Hadron Collider crowd, I’ve taken up the rest – that is, “A Theory of Everything Else,” based on my own groundbreaking experiences as a dog walker, camp counselor and bingo caller.
For instance, why are thousands perishing as a result of assault weapons, carbon emissions, forest fires, pesticides, and processed foods – yet lawn darts were banned in the 1980s after two people died? And if felines are the pets with such great vision then why aren’t there any seeing-eye cats? And how is it that everyone wants to live a long time but no one wants to grow old?
“Dana Digs In” is my fourth book for children. I volunteered at the Booker T. Washington Learning Center in East Harlem for 22 years, and so I enjoy taking an issue that actual students grappled with and turning it into a story. In my telling, the young person shows initiative and employs creativity to eventually resolve a situation without help from parents and teachers. In fact, oftentimes, adults are the obstacles.
The solutions don’t require family connections or money, so hopefully the story resonates with young people no matter their household income or living situation. And I always show diverse families. When I began, I was surprised to read that 86% of children’s books lacked multiculturalism.
What's it like being president of the Authors Guild Foundation? Has Covid-19 had an impact on any of your 2020 plans?
The Authors Guild is America's oldest and largest professional organization for writers and provides advocacy on issues of free expression and copyright protection. We try to help our 9,000-plus membership earn a living wage in a time when advances and royalties grow smaller while many customers have access to deeply discounted or free books.
I love a bargain as much as the next person, but if books are free, the only people able to write them will have trust funds, and the stories will no longer be fully representative of American life.
Publishing is like an assembly line, so it’s rare that an author is able to change the release date of a book. Thus, many of us have had book tours, signings, TV appearances, and speaking engagements canceled. It’s possible to do some events outdoors and over Zoom but people are becoming fatigued with that. Meanwhile, I don’t recommend performing comedy outside. It’s not that it doesn’t work at all, but there’s something about a ceiling ricocheting laughs around a room that certainly adds a lot to a set.
What was it like to receive the honorary degree?
I was delighted to be honored by Canisius. Several friends earned degrees or taught there. I gave a few creative writing seminars at Canisius back in the 1990s. And, of course, I biked past Canisius all the time when Freddie’s Donuts was still in business.
You mentioned it wasn't always easy to be a woman in the world of humor and comedy. What was that experience like and what did you learn?
Women weren’t that welcome in comedy clubs when I was performing at the Improv in New York back in the 1980s. And, while working for Joan Rivers, I witnessed firsthand how much negativity she experienced for being funny while being female. Fortunately, one can approach humor through a number of different avenues, and now that’s true more than ever.
Comedy also has its niches just like sports and reading, and, well, pretty much everything. We don’t even have singalongs anymore since people no longer know the same songs, especially younger people. At this age and stage, I feel fortunate to be working in several lanes that I love and have enough of an audience that enjoys my brand of humor.
Who else from the region has had an impact on your career?
For decades The Twentieth Century Club of Buffalo has been a tremendous supporter of my career – not just organizing and attending local events, but with entire groups traveling to Manhattan for plays, talks, brunches and dinners. This has been a continuous and important source of encouragement to me. I'm an only child, so it's like having several hundred aunts cheering me on.
There's no way I can ever repay them. I'm not even around to shovel their driveway.