Tara Lazar has mastered dancing in the rain. The famed children’s author (and once-upon-a-time competitive figure skater) writes books that both parents and kids absolutely love. And her latest book, Time Flies: Down To The Last Minute, is another book that features her famous character Private I as he tries to solve another Capital City mystery. Tara Lazar sat down exclusively with Celebrity Parents to talk about her new children’s book, her battle with multiple sclerosis, and how she plans to be an old lady character actress in the future.
Tara, I have to tell you that the impetus for our interview is your book, The Upper Case. I’ve read this book so many times to my kids, and it’s one of those books that I love reading to them. It has adult humor yet it still funny for younger kids, too.
The first book, 7 Ate 9, was the first book in the series. You always have to come up with ideas, and I was thinking what would be a punchline to a joke that every elementary kid school would know, and it was “Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 ate 9!” All the jokes started coming, and then I think my kids were young at the time I wrote the book, and they thought it was cheesy, so I knew it would be a hit! [laughs]
Picture books are made for a parent and child to read together, so I try to put things in the book that are a wink and a nod to the parents who are reading it 10 million times. And that’s what I do when I write. I think of something which I find funny, and I say, “Oh wait, that’s hilarious!”, and that’s what I do when I write. I laugh at the stuff I come up with, so I know that if I laugh, you’re gonna laugh.
Do you do voices in your head when you write?
I do. I just did this story, Lost and Hound, and it’s about a blood hound. I envisioned it happening in the south, so it has a southern drawl to it. There’s a lot of “I reckon” and “ya’ll”. I’ll hear a voice and I have to write to that voice. Voice in writing is something you can’t teach. You can teach plot arc, but you can’t teach voice. And I think that the voice comes from my acting background. My dream was to be on Saturday Night Live. But then Tina Fey took my job!
Acting was a dream that I didn’t pursue, because what I really wanted was independence. I didn’t have a really good home life because my parents divorced, and I wanted to be independent. I knew that a creative career (which I was meant to do), didn’t necessarily pay the bills. I didn’t want to rely on anyone, so I got a real job, working in marketing and PR for high tech in the 90s, during irrational exuberance. I made enough money that when I did get married and had my kids, I could stay home. That’s when I started the writing. But I think when I’m older, I might be that old lady character actress.
So writing has always been something you wanted to do.
Absolutely. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I went to the library and got a book, She Was Nice To Mice. And my school librarian told me, “Tara, did you know that the girl who wrote that book is 12 years-old. And it was Ally Sheedy.” I thought to myself, “She’s 12, and I’m 8. That’s four more years and I can be an author!” That’s when it clicked in my brain that if she did it, I could do it, too.
I was also a figure skater when I was a kid. There wasn’t enough money for me to continue it when I was a kid, so when I was in my 20s, I went back. I had a coach and learned a whole bunch of new tricks. I competed as an adult and eventually I went to Adult Nationals in 2002. That was a dream come true. I had already won Eastern Sectionals, and I was 29 at the time. When it happened, I thought to myself, “You always wanted to compete in figure skating, and you did. You can be a published author, too.” Because I did the skating, it gave me the confidence to do it, and I did.
Do you think you would then want to pursue acting, too?
Oh yes, but the multiple sclerosis (MS) makes it hard. I get very tired. When I do school visits, you’re on the whole time. There are some days that I can’t get out of bed; I’m tired, I’m achy, some things hurt. It’s hard for me to have a schedule, even for school visits. So doing something like a real job where I can’t sit and write all day, it’s hard.
When were you diagnosed with MS?
It was Halloween 2009. We were trick or treating, and I slipped on some wet leaves, and I sprained my ankle. I did it all the time; I was an ankle sprainer for my entire life. A couple of days later, half my foot went numb, which was really weird. I ignored it and then the rest of my foot went numb. A few more days went by, and my right foot went numb, and I knew that it was nothing to do with the surgery I had on my foot years ago. Usually there’s some sort of catalyst that makes a person’s MS come out; a traumatic event, and me slipping on the leaves woke it up.
I was diagnosed with MS in early 2010, and they automatically call you “Relapsing-Remitting” which is the most common version. You’ll have the numb feet and then you’ll be fine for a while. My feet never came back, though, so I started to think that I didn’t have “Relapsing-Remitting”. They won’t diagnose you as something else until you have years of it, so now they’ve diagnosed me as Primary Progressive MS. It’s the worst kind, and I get progressively worse. However, this was in 2010, and now we’re in 2021, and I’m still walking. I’m not in a wheelchair yet, and I’ve been going to therapy for over a decade. My arms are super strong; they don’t wave in the wind anymore. I need a walker and I need support, but I can walk and get around.
Can you feel your feet and legs now?
I can. I can feel numbness, tingling, and pain. I like to tell people that my legs are two champagne glasses full of champagne, because they’re bubbling and fizzing all the time.
That’s a very inspiring way of describing it, sort of like a celebration.
My doctor said that he never heard anyone describe it like that before. [laughs]
But I’m not going to say I wasn’t depressed; I was. There was one year — I call it My Lost Year — where I was so depressed. I was in mourning for the person I thought I was going to be. My husband and I were very active; we loved to go hiking and be outdoors, and we wanted to take our girls, Eliana and Autumn, places, and that all changed. So there was a period of mourning and have this new focus, and it took me a while. My husband was doing everything, and I was just upstairs withering away into nothing. I missed a whole year; I can’t remember anything from it. Once that was over, I was okay. Now I can do things, but with modifications. My car has hand controls, so I just drive with my hands. Everything is modifications.
That’s definitely true of life.
It’s all about adapting and celebrating the good things. My daughter, Autumn, she’s my rainbow child. I had a pregnancy that went to 21 weeks, and the baby had fluid in the brain, heart, lungs, and stomach, and that was really devastating. But when I got pregnant with Autumn, I knew that everything was going to be fine. And it was.
You’ve been through a lot.
The stories I could tell you!
But look at the stories you do tell. They’re fun and they’re happy.
It’s all about the humor. My father was the funny guy, and I think he was the funny guy because he was a chemical patent attorney. Doesn’t that sound boring?
Well, from one creative to another, yes, it kind of does.
I think his job was so boring that he had to liven it up. He was always telling one-liners, and my brother and I were trying to keep up with him. A lot of my humor comes from him, and my husband is hilarious, too. That’s why I married him; he’s a funny guy!
What are your plans for the future?
Eliana is going to college in the fall and Autumn will be home, so it’s basically eight years of paying for college! I want to have a hit book, and just keep writing. I was talking to my financial advisor, and she was talking about retirement. I don’t plan to retire; I’m doing what I love and there’s no reason to stop.
And I don’t want to dwell on the MS, either. I read a quote last night: “Life is not about getting through storms; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” It’s so true. I can sit here and be depressed, or I can sit here and write books. I entertain people and make them laugh, especially kids. Really, what’s better than that?