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What ruined LA author's family launched her career
As fiction ruined her family, it also gave a first-time LA author great memoir material
By The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) ' Jeanne Darst has the perfect scenario for promoting her just-published book "Fiction Ruined My Family": She'll borrow every neighbor's dirty dish, knife and fork and scatter them all over the house. Then, after unleashing a pet bunny, she'll put on a Mexican wrestler's mask, take off her clothes and greet visitors naked at the front door of her apartment.

"Of course, my friends are like, 'Maybe you ought to just keep it simple and not freak them out,'" laughs Darst, who has chosen instead to dress head-to-toe in black and leave the wrestler's mask on a shelf as she leans out a window to shout directions down to a visitor wandering around lost in the small garden below her spacious Spanish-style apartment on the edge of downtown.

In her old days, especially her drinking days, Darst really would have created that scene. It would have been one more way of cutting through that thick cloud of tension that hovered constantly over her family as she, the youngest of four children, tried vainly "to make everybody laugh" and convince them that things weren't as bad as they seemed.

But if fiction really did destroy her family, if it dashed her father's dream of becoming the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his generation, drove her late mother to alcoholism and her parents to divorce, it also provided Darst a wealth of material for a memoir New York Times critic Janet Maslin recently praised as "winningly snarky." Others have called the author's first book both laugh-out-loud funny and, at the same time, horrifically tragic, as it chronicles her parents' increasingly oddball behavior and her own bumbling descent into alcoholism as her father's obsession with literary success never reaches fruition.

"She's a very soulful writer. Her stories have a lot of drama and feeling in them. At the same time they are really, really funny," says Ira Glass, producer of the syndicated public radio program "This American Life," where Darst began to find her voice as a memoirist two years ago. Before that, the 42-year-old writer and performance artist worked at a variety of jobs including nanny, plant caretaker and limo driver. She lost the latter gig after she was dispatched to an airport to pick up Depak Chopra and mistakenly collected members of the New York Giants football team instead.

But as her family sank further into dysfunction, Darst began writing more and more, sometimes even acting as writer-director-actress in one-woman shows she performed in her living room to help pay the rent. Through it all, she also kept gathering material for "Fiction Ruined My Family."

"We had heard Jeanne's first piece when it aired on 'This American Life' and instantly loved her voice and her humor, so when her agent submitted the proposal we were already fans," Sarah McGrath, her editor at Riverhead Press, said of the book that resulted.

Darst's memoir begins in 1976 as she, then 7 years old, is being bundled into the family station wagon with her mother, three sisters and father for a thousand-mile journey from the family's native St. Louis to Long Island, N.Y. There, the Darsts planned to decamp for one year in the Hamptons, the summer playground for New York's literati and other beautiful people, so that her father, Stephen Darst, could write the Great American Novel.

One year would eventually turn into 35, as the elder Darst produced not a Great American Novel but two unpublished manuscripts, and his family fell into a kind of tragicomic despair. He quit writing, and the family went from middle-class to flat broke. Darst's mother, Doris Gissy Darst, a one-time St. Louis society matron, took up drinking as a full-time pursuit. Darst herself would first pick up the bottle at a party at age 13 and not put it down permanently until she was 30.

"I was a complete blackout drinker. I never knew what was going to happen," she says, explaining how she once drunkenly broke up with a boyfriend, forgot doing so by the next day, then hounded him for weeks afterward, asking him why he wouldn't see her anymore.

By the time she stopped drinking, Darst relates in the book, she had become so unpredictable, sloppy and sometimes violent that even men known to take sexual advantage of drunken women didn't want to sleep with her.

"I thought kicking your ass was a very fun thing to do," she recalls with a laugh as she sits at a long table in her dining room, which also doubles as her writing room. At the table's end is an ancient laptop on which "Fiction Ruined My Family" was written. In a nearby hall closet is a stack of early rough drafts that stands 2 feet high.

It's a typically warm, sunny fall day in Los Angeles, and the windows to Darst's non-air-conditioned apartment are wide open, allowing a swath of sunlight to filter in, which is something the author hates.

"I DON'T like the sunshine," the trim Darst says. "As you can see, I'm very pale, and my complexion is best described as breaded."

The dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker doesn't think much of Los Angeles either, although it's been her home for nearly five years. She followed her ex-husband West, and she isn't likely to return East anytime soon because she doesn't want to separate their 4-year-old son from him.

It's a situation that, somewhat eerily, mirrors the move her family made in 1976.

From the beginning, her mother had reservations about the move. Her grandmother thought it was a profoundly stupid idea. The Darsts, after all, were a big deal in St. Louis. A cousin, Joseph Darst, had been mayor in the 1950s and Darst's father Stephen had served on the Board of Aldermen in the 1960s. Once a reporter for one of the city's biggest newspapers, Stephen Darst had successfully transitioned to freelance writer, getting published in magazines such as Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Nation and The New York Times Magazine. Her mother had made the cover of Sports Illustrated herself, as a child prodigy equestrian, in 1956.

Stephen Darst, now 78, still lives in New York, where he substitute teaches when he's not busy working on a Fitzgerald biography.

Although he, like the rest of the family, has been supportive of her career, Darst says, her father has no interest in discussing her book. While he's expressed some sensitivity about his portrayal, the author says, she believes that overall he likes it.

"I joked with him when he was in maybe one of his more sensitive moments," she says as the sun continues to beat down on her. "I just sort of said, 'Dad, come on. How many of your friends' kids take the time, not only to write a memoir, but to publish a memoir trashing them?' And he laughed."

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