By Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Ellie Kemper’s new book, “My Squirrel Days,” is a collection of more than two dozen short essays, assembled more or less chronologically, about certain incidents in her life.
Writers are often told to write like their parents are dead.
Ellie Kemper does not believe in that. Her parents, David and Dotty Kemper of Ladue, Mo., are very much alive, and in her first book of autobiographical essays, “My Squirrel Days,” the actress included nothing that might shock or upset them.
Kemper, 38, is famously nice, polite and upbeat. As the title character in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the hapless receptionist Erin in “The Office” and the bridesmaid Becca in “Bridesmaids,” she was essentially playing exaggerated versions of her perky and cheerful self.
“They’re all sort of similar to me. That is something that I enjoy, because I think I know my strengths as an actor, and I like playing them up,” she said by phone from her home in New York.
“I’m not worried about being typecast, (but) I think it would be fun playing something the opposite of what I’ve had experience playing. Something with a little bit more edge would be fun to play.”
The 1998 John Burroughs High School grad comes back to town a few times a year, and every time she tries to do some of her favorite things, “most of them food-related.” She gets the BLT from PJ’s Tavern in Kirkwood, a chicken dish from House of India in University City, a chicken salad sandwich (Chuck’s No. 39) from Companion Bakery “and of course I love going to Ted Drewes,” she said.
Ice cream is something of an obsession for Kemper, a theme she touches on briefly and humorously in her book. While acknowledging Ben & Jerry’s Tonight Dough flavor as a longtime love, her current favorite has St. Louis roots. It is Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, from New York’s Ample Hills Creamerie.
“It’s delicious. You can honestly have four bites and be satisfied,” she said.
Kemper was an English major at Princeton; before becoming a TV star, she wrote humorous headlines for the Onion (“Grapes ‘big hit’ at area picnic,” “Dog in purse stares longingly at dog in yard”) and satirical stories for McSweeney’s (“Some relatively recent college grads discuss their maids” and even “Following my creative writing teacher’s advice to ‘Write like your parents are dead'”).
So writing a collection of essays was something she had wanted to do for a long time. When she learned she was pregnant, “it was a deadline. I thought if I didn’t pitch a book now I would never do it,” she said.
She signed with Simon & Schuster one month before giving birth to her son, James, who is now 2. She laughs at the thought that she could write the essays before the baby arrived.
“I struggled with the structure, because I wanted to sprinkle fiction in there,” she said. “As I wrote it, I realized that wasn’t going to work. Anything that I wrote that was more absurd didn’t fit with the more serious things in there.”
The book is a collection of more than two dozen short essays, assembled more or less chronologically, about certain incidents in her life. Taken collectively, they reveal her personality, history and character without becoming bogged down in specifics.
It is a memoir, but an unusual kind. One essay describes how much a beloved second-grade student teacher, and especially the stuffed walrus the teacher gave her for her birthday, have meant to her.
One describes the way her athletic abilities, which were good for high school, were not quite good enough for college. More than one discuss her devotion to SoulCycle, a chain of stationary-bike gyms that combine exercise with a vaguely New Age devotion to self.
She writes without embarrassment about the way she loses control of her bladder when she laughs very hard, which has happened to her since she was a child.
“To me, that is as natural as a sunset. Because I have been doing it so long, I mentioned it,” she said.
And in one essay, titled “Slob,” she admits to not always washing her hands after she uses the bathroom in her own home. She admitted to having writer’s remorse about including that detail, not the least because, yes, her parents will read it.
But she is unrepentant about not washing her hands. “They’re not dirty,” she said.