Creative Careers in the Arts

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Spirited Woman Q & A

Interview with Author and 'Beyond Words' Radio Host Frances Halpern

By Nancy Mills | Posted June 1, 2005 | Updated May 12, 2019

I've known Frances Halpern for close to five years now. There's a writer's lunch group that meets weekly in Santa Barbara, and when I first arrived in town, I went not knowing a soul. Once I sat down, this gregarious, out-spoken woman, be-friended me. Where are you from? What do you do? How did you get here? A woman of a thousand questions, I instantly liked her. I later found out, she has a very successful radio show — no wonder for all the questions.

Frances was born 70something years ago in the Bronx. She married before she was 20, raised three kids with her husband Ted, and then later in life at the age of 40 — she blew the lid off her traditional life and went to work as a newspaper columnist. She won many press awards, and later wrote the "Writer's Guide To West Coast Publishing" and the "Writer's Guide To Publishing in the West," and became widely known as a publishing expert.

Later on, in Santa Barbara, she started her own radio show called "Literary Lunch," and then she was offered a highly coveted spot on NPR's affiliate KCLU, where she co-created "Beyond Words," a nine-year-long running show. She interviews everybody and anybody connected to the word — from actors to authors to producers. Frances has had quite a life.

Recently widowed after 58 years of a wonderful marriage, Frances, who never went to college and considers herself an Auto-Didact (someone who is self-taught) continues to live her life filled with an ever-burning passion for learning. Frances, my friends, is the real deal…a wonderful spokesperson for a positive attitude and for building your life on guts and dreams. Here's Frances.

Q: You started your career late in life. Tell us about that?

A: The funny story is, I thought after raising my kids, I'll get a little job in the school system because even though the kids were teenagers it's still good to be around the house. And I was not able to make the cut as a clerk at the school system. Anger is what made me focus, because I felt that I was being dumped on as a woman of 40 and I ran across the street to the newspaper and I said you've got to give me a job. I think I put the woman's movement back a 100 years because I burst into tears when this 27-year-old personnel guy in the school system said we weren't thinking of hiring anybody quite as gulp mature as you who's had no experience in the work force. He did not know that I had done a lot of volunteering, run a state wide political campaign, worked the precincts to build a library and he said that doesn't count because you weren't paid. At the newspaper they said who are you and why should we give you a job? And that made me focus again. So I said I'll start writing a column for you and the then editor said all you housewives think you can write a column and the minute your kids come down with the measles or your husband wants to take you on a cruise you won't deliver. I said my husband will never take me on a cruise and my kids have already had the measles. I sent them a few columns to show what I could do and I was paid 15 cents an inch and my editor said don't pad. God forbid another 15 cents. The column was called "On A Clear Day." It was a general column of what I observed in the community.

Q. How did you happen to get your show "Beyond Words?"

A. That was built on the fact that I at that point, nine years ago, had a lot of credits. Two published books, many, many published articles, almost 15 years probably at that time of writing weekly columns for major newspapers and I put together a proposal, by then I had hosted a local radio show in Santa Barbara called "Literary Lunch," and I was known as somebody who knew about the publishing business. So I was invited by John O'Brien to be a guest on his show — he said we can do it on the phone — and I said I can drive down and he said no, and I realized afterward when I was hosting the show why he wanted me on the phone because it's very hard to look somebody in the eye and say the interview is over. On the phone, it's easy. So I did go down — it was suppose to be a 20-minute interview and he kept me for the whole hour. Then he asked me to come back the next week for another hour, then the next week. So three weeks I ran down to be his guest on his show, and then he said why don't we get together and cook up a show — which became "Beyond Words" and he co-hosted it with me for several years, then I went on to host it alone.

Q. What makes a guest interesting?

A. To have great stories. To be willing to open up and to share. I find that the programs that resonate with the listeners are about the guests who will talk about their failures as well as their successes and who are not overly trained. A lot of people get voice coaches and they're also told you have to say the name of your book every 2 minutes. But generally I do find people interesting.

Q. Who were some of the most interesting authors you've interviewed. Why?

A. That is another tough question. I'll start dropping names. Tom Steinbeck, the son of author John Steinbeck because again, he was willing to share his life stories. Ray Bradbury because he's still childlike in a very positive way and his attitude that every minute of every day is so wonderful to him and he shares that. He said something on the air about why we are on this earth, and I started to cry. He said we are here as humans to observe and to share and someday we are going to go as far as Alpha Centurion and that's why we're here. We're going to go out there into space and do all these wonderful things. So of course, he was a wonderful guest. In nine years, every week, there have been hundreds of people I've interviewed.

Q. You're considered an expert in publishing — what tips can you give us on getting a book published?

A. Supposedly, people who are asked that question who are either publishers or editors or very published authors give you the mantra. If you've written a wonderful book it will bubble to the surface and somebody will publish it. Well my answer is yeah, maybe, and maybe not. It's a whole set of circumstances to get a book published. It's timing. Okay the obvious — it should be well written. Then you have to get lucky. You have to make the contacts and the timing is really important. I know that's a pretty out-there statement but the story behind every book is different. When I talk to published authors they all have a different story about how this happened.

Q. When you were a little girl what did you dream of (or want) to be?

A. I wanted to be a performer. I wanted to communicate one way or the other. Which is why I became a writer because when I was home with three children the idea of making the rounds with auditions was just out of the question. I guess I didn't have the fire in the belly. But writing you can do once you put the children down for the night or even during their naps — you can sit down at the typewriter or the computer or with a yellow pad — and write — and that's a form of communicating, so that's what I did. Before I had a career in writing, I did the Homeowner's Bulletin and the PTA Bulletin as a volunteer — all of these things that this guy at the school said I didn't get paid for so it doesn't count. But I was teaching myself how to write and how to count words.

Q. What characteristic in you do you feel most led to your success?

A. Attitude. Being aware of not having someone telling you no. Because even at the radio station and before that, when I wanted to get certain articles into certain magazines — when somebody tells me no and it doesn't make sense — I think how can I turn that no into a yes. That is really crucial, plus a very positive attitude. I'm not particularly sensitive, I'm not easily offended or hurt and I think that's very important in relationships and in career relationships and so when a magazine in Los Angeles kept telling me no, I said I'm not going to take no for an answer, I'm going to figure out how to get to them — and how I got to them was selling subscriptions to the magazine.

Q. Any advice for us in general?

A. Yes, I want to go back to that I'm serious about this, about attitude, about not being easily offended, about not worrying about who said what about you behind your back or to your face, about just being positive. Yes, it could be a lousy world either personally or generally, but when I wake up every morning, I say it's going to be okay and I work my way through it. By the end of the day I may have had rejections but I am not going to take it personally, and I'm just going to keep going.

Q. Frances, why do you feel you are a spirited woman?

A. I feel that it is two things — nurture and nature. Both my parents were positive people. They certainly had a lot to complain about but it just wasn't there. So it was the household that I grew up in, plus the extended family, I had 25 relatives and we all lived in the same building. So we had a lot of resources and I think some people are genetically more blessed — maybe somebody will disagree with that — and then it was helped through the nurture with the kind of upbringing we had in a very middle-class apartment in the Bronx. We just went out and did stuff. I don't know if that makes any sense. But we did.

©2005 Nancy Mills. All rights reserved.

Next: Interview with Creative Sage's Cathryn Hrudicka