Blogs become books. Can a memoir become a sitcom?

Moving to the other side of the cash wrap…felt as disorienting to me as Alice might have felt when she slipped through the mirror into Wonderland, landing unawares in…a world populated by Mad Hatters, rushing rabbits, chatty chess pieces, and enormous mushrooms. ~ Caitlin Kelly in MALLED

Behind the scenes. That’s where Caitlin Kelly takes readers in her memoir Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail (out April 14, 2011 from Portfolio). Today, I’m hosting Caitlin here to talk about her journey from an essay in the New York Times, to a memoir, to contract talks with CBS.

From Caitlin’s bio:

The book combines her personal story of moving into low-wage customer service at 50; others, mid-career and mid-recession, taking these jobs and a detailed, national analysis of this $4 trillion industry.

A regular contributor to The New York Times since 1990, Kelly has written for USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, More, and other publications in Canada and Europe. A former reporter for the New York Daily News, Toronto Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, she is the winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor), and five journalism fellowships. Born and raised in Canada, she has lived in the U.S. since 1988, and has also lived in England, France and Mexico.

As a bonus, Caitlin is giving away a signed copy of her memoir. At the end of her guest post, leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy of Malled. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, September 6th, at high noon.

 Welcome, Caitlin Kelly

If you’d told me that taking a low-wage job folding T-shirts in a suburban mall would lead to negotiating a contract with CBS on my birthday for a possible sitcom based on my life, I’d have laughed hysterically.

But that’s exactly what’s happened to me since Sept. 25, 2007 when I was hired to work as a part-time sales associate for The North Face at an upscale mall in White Plains, NY. I hadn’t worked a low-wage job since high school, was 50 and heading into a recession.

My own story quickly became just one of many in this ongoing recession. In February 2009, I published an essay in The New York Times business section explaining how moving from journalism – my only industry since graduating college in 1979 – to retail had turned out, then, to be a good choice for me. I liked the clarity of retail’s reported numbers: how much I sold per hour, my average daily sale, what percentage of my merchandise was later returned. In journalism, publishing and blogging, all judgments of value are totally subjective.

By June 2009, I had found an agent who felt confident we could find a publisher to take my memoir of working in the nation’s third-largest industry and single greatest source of new jobs. It wasn’t quite as quick and easy as we’d hoped, with 25 rejections before Portfolio, the business imprint of Penguin, bought it in September 2009.

I continued working in the store for another three months, taking many more notes than before, gathering as much detail, color, anecdote and dialogue as possible. No one at the company knew I was writing a book, and it felt strange to be writing things down while standing at the cash wrap.

I quit the job December 18, 2009 and began to write full-time. By June I was done, although revisions and some restructuring were necessary. Because retail is ever-changing, I read the business press every day, adding as necessary to keep the manuscript timely and up-to-date.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published April 14, 2011 and received a terrific amount of national attention, with reviews and features in People, Marie-Claire, USA Today, The New York Times, Financial Times and Entertainment Weekly. I also appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show (2 million listeners), Marketplace and The Brian Lehrer Show.

Emails soon started showing up from major entertainment companies expressing interest in it as a vehicle for film or television. I thought they were hoaxes! But by June 6, 2011, my birthday, we had an offer from CBS to option “Malled” as a possible sitcom. They have since commissioned a script. The next steps, I hope, are a pilot and a series; if so, I’m signed on as a story consultant for a few years.

This fairly quick journey from a Times essay to a book to a possible television show is a combination of factors: timing, luck, story, competition, voice and a tough agent. There have only been three other books I’m aware of now on the market that really describe in real time what it’s like to lose a good job, move down the economic ladder and tell the truth about how it feels. I was fortunate enough to find a good agent and an enthusiastic publisher. The book is written as a memoir, but it’s not just my story. I knew from the start that my story alone was insufficient, so it also includes dozens of original interviews with other sales associates nationwide, senior retail executives, Wall Street analysts and others.

One way I managed to get the book produced fairly quickly was – as I also did with my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” – by hiring researchers. They conducted some of my interviews and gathered statistics.

In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken as the closing keynote at a retail conference in Minneapolis, celebrated the sale of “Malled” to China, where it will be translated, and chatted with the veteran screenwriter who’s now creating his characters, one of them based on me.

It’s all a little surreal, kind of exciting and a lot more fun than folding T-shirts.

~

Entertainment Weekly calls [Malled] “an excellent memoir” and USA Today says “Malled is a bargain, even at full price. Kelly is a first-rate researcher and storyteller.” Original interviews include consultant Paco Underhill, retailer Jack Mitchell and Costco CFO Richard Galanti.

Read more on Caitlin Kelly by visiting her website and her blog, Also, check out another book by Kelly, Blown Away, on American women and guns. Don’t forget to leave a comment, as well, for a chance to win a copy of her memoir.

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7 responses to “Blogs become books. Can a memoir become a sitcom?

  1. Loved this post. What a great life! Thanks for the interview. I wonder if my husband would want to read the book? He’s been inretail for over fifteen years now.

  2. Great post – love the ‘story’ behind the book. I do believe in the process of making note of every thing that happens (whether physically writing them down or mental notes,) and creating the work from it…. I am following the same course and it feels great putting it ‘out there’ for others to read as well. Congrats on your accomplishments! Best to you. Johnny

  3. Christi, thanks for hosting Catlin and her amazing story!

    Once upon a time in my fifties, retired early with no pension, too young for social security and in a new place, I remembered the words I told my children and the hundreds of teens in our agency’s summer work program … if you have no money, no prospect and all else seems dismal … go get a job!

    I needed money until I could regroup and found a night job in a phone room, doing customer research. That job turned out to be one of the best moves since my brother’s wife suggested I work as a shevling clerk in our local library since I loved to read.

    People watching, listening to folks who lived in all fifty states, and the reaction pf managers and bosses who were often younger than my grown kids to this feisty old broad from NYC, was not only fun, it put me back in touch with what I loved most about people … we’re all nuts and happy to be so 🙂

    I would so love to see a TV show based on your story. It is the story of so many out of work teachers and dozens of other professionals and telling it with humor makes me love the idea even more. Great, good things to you and keep writing!

  4. Thanks for hosting Caitlin, Christi! It’s great to hear such a wonderful author success story, and good luck to you, Caitlin, on the TV show possibility!

  5. Thanks everyone for stopping by, and a special thank you to Caitlin. I love seeing where our writing takes us. Good luck on on the sitcom!

    Now, for the winner of Caitlin’s signed copy — congrats to…Laura! Look for an email from me soon 🙂

    And Florence, sounds like you might have gathered some great material for lots of stories while you were working that job!

  6. Me? Oh wow! I never win anything. I’m so excited to read Caitlin’s memoir. Thanks for featuring her and for running the contest, Christi!

  7. Pingback: Surprises in the Mail | Laura Stanfill

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