Talk about six degrees of separation: Not only is the subject of this latest Style Newsletter sit-down a friend of a friend, she’s also the first cousin of yet another pal, and a former beauty P.R. moll who has run in the same professional circles as me. We both consider ice cream a major food group and we feel the exact same way about the written word (“I’ve never downloaded a book”) and about asking for help (“I’m a Type-A mother”). To most, however, Lee Woodruff is known as a best-selling author, a lifestyle contributor to T.V. and radio, and the relentlessly upbeat and oft-hilarious wife of ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, who sustained-and recovered from-a near-fatal brain injury while on assignment in Iraq. Lee is someone whom everyone should know: kind, funny, open, honest, and oh-so quotable. Indeed, she was tossing out life-affirming gems until the last 20 seconds of our interview (which I very happily came out of “retirement” to do for all you PrincetonScoop fans). Lee’s belief that the beauty of being a working mom is that “every day looks a little bit different” makes me, very simply, want to hug her. And when she arrives at the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, April 12, to wax candid about what she calls in her latest blog post “the vicissitudes of life,” I promise that you’ll want to hug her, too.
PrincetonScoop: So, let’s dig right in: You’re working on a novel.
Lee Woodruff: Yeah, I sold a novel. It will be out 2012. [In it], a child dies unexpectedly and it’s [about] the interaction between the four characters around the child and what happens to them in the wake of that loss. Some good things do come out of it; it’s not a complete downer. Far before I ever had bad things of my own, I was drawn to stories where people went through difficult times and figured out how to go forward. In the wake of everything that our family’s been through, you realize what a common experience that is in life. I’d much rather read a story that has more turmoil than the happy-ending, nanny-marries-the-investment-banker thing.
PS: You’re a best-selling author, a T.V. correspondent, you have a Web site, a blog, and an hilarious video blog. You’ve got an inordinate number of friends on Facebook and you’re on Twitter.
LW: Well, I just sort of friend everyone because it’s a chance to talk about [the Bob Woodruff Foundation] and veterans, and it’s a chance to connect with people, too. I mean, there’s a fun element to it, but man, as a writer, all of these social media things, they could take your entire day up.
PS: Do you prefer one to the other?
LW: I enjoy blogging, although again, as somebody who wants to write books and has a million ideas and just doesn’t have enough time, the blogging is time-consuming and [so] I’ve decided to make it shorter and sweeter. The whole Web site is kind of getting an overhaul. After years of people telling me, “You need someone to help you with all this stuff,” and resisting it because I’m a type-A mother, I finally got someone who wants to help me, so we’re in the process of making it more fun by summer.
PS: Is that the key to how you manage being a mom, a wife, and a very prolific writer? To just ask for help?
LW: I would be really horrible at following my own advice if that were true, but I think that is true. Part of my feeling is, if I get an assistant, that’s just somebody else I have to manage in my life. I’ve got four kids and a dog and a babysitter, and then I want to add somebody to help me, and it’s overwhelming. But you have to ask and I’m trying to take my own advice. I’m going to have to give into it at some time.
PS: When do you actually find time to write?
LW: I’m so envious of those people who say [they] carve three hours out [to write]. I can’t possibly do that as a working mother. My first book [In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing] was written as a journal as we were going through our stuff. The second book [Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress] was written on airplanes and in hotel rooms [during] book tours and speaking engagements, and [my novel] was pretty much written the same way. I can write articles at home, but I cannot carve time out [to just write]. I sort of write in the shadows of my life. Because right now, the kids come first and work commitments, things to do with veterans, our foundation, the brain-injured community, those are really high on my list, as well, because that’s part of giving back for all of our good fortune. Writing kind of gets third shrift, and then after that comes my nails and my brows. [Laughs]
PS: Many of us know the story of your husband, Bob’s, near-fatal accident in Iraq and his miraculous recovery. How did writing the memoir In An Instant with him help your healing process? As a reader, it felt very much like a catharsis.
LW: Oh, it totally was. In the hospital, I needed to start making sense of it all and exerting some kind of control over a completely chaotic situation. So I kept writing, and I was writing for Bob, hoping he would wake up and he’d want to know what happened. And writing for the kids, if Bob didn’t make it, and I kept writing because it felt good. And then Bob’s neurosurgeon said, “I know you’re a writer. Someone needs to write a book about this topic because there are thousands of these men and women coming into military hospitals and nobody in America has any idea about the extent of what these brain injuries are.” And that really stayed with me.
PS: During the whole ordeal, how did you keep your sense of humor so sharp?
LW: I read a great quote once, something to the effect of, “Gallows humor evolved because when you’re really laughing from the diaphragm, it’s nearly impossible to cry.” We would call Bob “Coma Boy” or “Half Head” when we’d walk in his room, and you could see some of the nurses like, “Wow, this is a tough crowd.” And you know what?You just make light of your situation so you can keep laughing, because laughter is the thing that makes you feel like you’re alive.
PS: Your most recent book, Perfectly Imperfect, also is a New York Times bestseller. Why did you feel this was the right kind of book to write after the memoir?
LW: When Bob recovered and was doing so well, we were approached about whether or not I would want to write a book, and I was like, “Well, I have 900 pages of stuff,” and so much had to be cut away to stay close to the story. Perfectly Imperfect grew out of a lot of those [less serious] moments in life that I had been writing about [and] were just spewing out of me.
PS: You and your husband are great advocates for traumatic brain injuries and have started the Bob Woodruff Foundation in support of wounded servicemen.
LW: People apply to us for grants and we help anybody who has been wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, specifically, [and] anybody in the family equation, kids, caregivers, with everything from scholarships to college to counseling. The government is never going to solve this problem, and it’s going to have to be a coalition of public and private funding to help these families, and so there’s so much need. If each one of us gave five bucks in this country, we could do so much good. It’s pathetic what we’re not doing for our vets.
PS: So, what’s next for you, aside from the novel?
LW: I’ve been telling these stories in different ways for four years. That’s a long time. There’s a time to change your story because you keep living it over and over again and then you never escape [it]. I wear a lot of hats, and that makes me happy because I’ve got a lot of directions to go [in]. I mean, I would just love to be able to close the door and write for four hours every day and maybe, when the kids are out of the house, I could be better about that. One of the biggest lessons I learned in Bob’s injury and recovery was that it would be really easy to think that we could script our lives, [but] I really just have to embrace the beauty of the fact that I really don’t have a great idea what life’s going to look like. And that’s okay.
The P.S. Top Five with Lee:
Actual books or Kindle/Nook/iPad? I am still the dinosaur who reads actual books. I love to hold them in my hand.
Favorite room in your house: My office. It’s red and I had the desktop constructed from wood from an old Chinese temple so I could get some good juju for writing.
Favorite simple pleasures? A homemade latte in the morning. A snuggle with my dog. And the moments I’m reading with my children or watching them do artwork.
What are you reading right now? Life, by Keith Richards Best advice ever received: An 80-plus cancer survivor said to me, “When the bad thing happens, you’ve got two choices: You can either get bitter or you can get better.” I think that’s a great metaphor for life.
Lee Woodruff will be at The Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, April 12, at 7 p.m. to discuss her books In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing and Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress, and “going through tough stuff and getting through things,” and the challenges of “that middle place in life.” Admission is free. For more information, visit princetonlibrary.org
Interview by Jennifer Henderson for PrincetonScoop