Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Chanel Bonfire includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Wendy Lawless. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this strikingly honest memoir, actress Wendy Lawless shares the often-heartbreaking story of her childhood with an alcoholic and suicidal mother—equal parts Holly Golightly and Mommie Dearest—and the extraordinary resilience that allowed her to rise above it all.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you suppose Wendy Lawless chose to open Chanel Bonfire with her mother’s first suicide attempt? What does this scene reveal about Georgann, as well as about nine-year-old Wendy and her younger sister, Robin?
2. When Wendy and Robin were children, Georgann told them about her abusive upbringing in the form of a bedtime story. Did knowing about her traumatic past make you more sympathetic? Why or why not? Do you think Georgann had any redeeming qualities as a mother? How do you think Wendy and Robin would answer this question?
3. Why did Wendy decide to contact her father after not seeing him for a decade? Given the circumstances, do you think James Lawless gave up too easily on trying to be involved in his daughters’ lives? Why or why not?
4. Refusing to speak to her daughters for extended periods of time was Georgann’s “most effective tactic.” (pg. 68) Why was this form of punishment even more devastating for Wendy than being spanked with a hairbrush or sent to bed without supper?
5. In what ways is role-playing a theme in Chanel Bonfire? What motivated Georgann to frequently reinvent herself? Why did her transformations typically coincide with a move to a new town or city?
6. Discuss Wendy and Robin’s relationship and how it changed in their teen years. “Robin had fully evolved into the defiant one” (pg. 138), says Wendy. What role did Wendy play in their sibling dynamic? Did their relationship remind you of any of your own personal relationships?
7. “I loved just being at the theater, the way it smelled, looked, and made me feel” (pg. 262), says Wendy. What did the theater and performing represent to Wendy? How much of her desire to act had to do with her father?
8. In hindsight, Wendy had misgivings about leaving Robin alone in the “Snake Pit” with their mother when she moved into the college dorm. Was she right or wrong to leave her sister alone with Georgann? Why did Wendy later decide to move back in with her mother? How did being in the house with Georgann affect her?
9. Dr. Keylor gave Wendy a list of symptoms for a clinical diagnosis called “Cluster B,” which the therapist believed applied to Georgann. Why did having this information give Wendy a sense of relief and make her feel as if she has made an “amazing discovery” (pg.166)?
10. Re-read the scene on page 273 where Michael offered advice to Wendy using salt and peppershakers as props. How did he make her see her relationship with her mother in a different way?
11. Wendy’s high school drama teacher, Mr. Valentine, suggested she audition for university acting programs. Who else offered encouragement to her throughout the years? Why did Pop continue to provide some financial and emotional support to Wendy and Robin even after his divorce from Georgann?
12. Wendy’s college roommate, Julie, once asked if she had “ever tried just talking” to her mother. Before reading Chanel Bonfire, would you have been inclined to offer similar advice to someone in a situation like Wendy’s? How about after reading this book?
13. What is your opinion of Wendy as a narrator and how she tells her story? Why do you think she was able to stay grounded in the midst of such a chaotic and frightening upbringing?
14. Why did you choose Chanel Bonfire for your book club discussion? What are your overall thoughts about the book? How does it compare to other memoirs your group has read?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Wendy enjoys the camaraderie while she’s working at Joyce Chen. Host your book club discussion at a Chinese restaurant, order takeout, or whip up your own Chinese food feast.
2. Put together a Chanel Bonfire soundtrack and play it as background music during your book club gathering. Songs mentioned in the memoir include “Allison” by Elvis Costello, “In My Life” by The Beatles, “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind & Fire, and “Sweet and Innocent” by Donny Osmond. Be sure to include something by Elton John, who Wendy once tripped accidentally outside a concert venue.
3. If you enjoyed Chanel Bonfire, consider adding another memoir about trying childhoods to your discussion line-up, such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Love Child by Allegra Huston, or Daughter of the Ganges by Asha Miro.
4. Test your memory. Have each member bring a childhood photograph to the meeting. Discuss how much or how little you remember about the time it was taken.
A Conversation with Wendy Lawless
1.Why did you decide to write a book about your childhood experiences? Was there a “light bulb moment” when you knew you wanted to share your story?
I had been telling the story anecdotally for years—to make people laugh, or to shock or entertain, or to somehow pay them back for the expensive meal they were buying me! And often, people would urge me to write it down, write a book, a memoir. But I was afraid. I knew the story was so much sadder and uglier than the jokes I had told about it. And honestly, there were parts of it I wasn’t eager to relive. It’s one thing to be glib and toss out a line like “My mother tried to run me over with the car.” It’s something else to remember it in detail and the circumstances and the emotions and feelings from the actual event. So I didn’t. I was acting full time on the stage in New York and married and then had a baby. My life was busy and full and I didn’t feel the need to go back.
Then, by the time my second child had come along, we were living in Los Angeles and I’d fallen out of love with acting so I decided to stop, except for an occasional commercial, and be at home with the kids full time. And while I didn’t miss the business of acting I did miss having a creative outlet, so I started to write. People always say you should write what you know, so I looked around the playgrounds where I spent a lot of my time, mostly alone because all the other kids seemed to be there with their nannies, and I wrote about that. They were all just short pieces, essays, about my kids, and being a mom in Hollywood, and being a mom who was raised by a mom who was nuts.
And after writing and thinking about these things for a while, I realized I couldn’t ignore the fact that everything I was doing, with my life and my kids, was to not be like my mother. I had thought that I’d completely severed that part of my life from this, the past from the present, but now I couldn’t ignore the fact that it still had a profound effect on me. It was an epiphany of sorts, and it came to me while sitting at a stop sign, and I started writing Chanel Bonfire that day, in the car.
2. What would you like people who have not yet read Chanel Bonfire to know about the book?
That it’s a horrible and horribly funny story of two girls, sisters, who survive the shipwreck of their childhood, without a road map or a how-to-manual. And that it has a happy ending.
I don’t think it ruins things to know that. The story is scary enough and perhaps, for some people, close to home, that I don’t worry that knowing things turn out for some of us will hurt their reading experience. I hope that reading the book may help some people come to terms with their own childhoods or recognize that their survival is a triumph they can cherish. And for younger people who may be struggling in similar situations that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that they can make it. And someday even laugh about it.
3. Did you read other memoirs while you were writing your own? If so, which ones did you find particularly inspiring or memorable?
I re-read Running With Scissors, I love his bravery and honesty. He really puts himself out there, and you feel guilty laughing but the book is so funny and dark at the same time. I found The Glass Castle deeply moving. The opening image of that book, where the author drives in a limo past her own mother dressed in rags, rummaging through a dumpster, punched me in the stomach right away. That was always how I thought my mother would end up, on the streets.
4. Your sister is featured prominently in the book. What was her reaction to being portrayed in print?
At first, before I was finished, she was upset, and didn’t understand why I was writing the book. But she did send me pictures and some of her memories which were helpful because our mother destroyed almost all the pictures of our childhood and adolescence and actually cut us out of the ones she did keep.
When she did start reading the full manuscript, she emailed me along the way at the very beginning and told me how much she was liking it. But it was uncomfortable for her when she reached the scenes of big emotional events and had to view them from someone else’s point of view. Everything wasn’t exactly the way she had remembered it. In some cases I was able to make scenes better with details she provided. But it was still strange and disorienting for her to read about her own life through my eyes—to be in a character in someone else’s book. That’s understandable, I think.
In the end, she told me she was glad I had written our story.
5. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is your honesty. Were you ever tempted to hold back on revealing certain details that were painful to dredge up or that you thought might portray you or your sister in a less-than-flattering light?
I actually did leave out some of the more gruesome details from my mother’s childhood. There are certain things she told me (When I was way too young to hear them, of course!) that will probably haunt me forever. I omitted them because I didn’t want the book to be too dark, or miserable. Other than that, no, I didn’t leave anything out. I really believe that the truth can’t hurt you, because it’s the truth.
6. Why did you decide on Chanel Bonfire as the title? How does it reflect the book? Were any other titles ever considered?
The title was originally just a chapter heading in the London section of the book, where the wild, teenage, backyard bonfire party scene was. My husband (the screenwriter David Kidd) and I were brainstorming titles in the kitchen one night, and he landed on this one. It sounded catchy, or so we thought. I wanted to, needed to pull people in right away, while I was trying to find an agent, and then sell the book. It worked; people responded to it.
What I hadn’t really thought about at the time I chose it was how much it resonates. Now I realize that it captures the idea of the dual nature of and danger of the beautiful façade my mother tried so hard to create: something that looks elegant but underneath is quite frightening and unstable. There are also the obvious parallels between our relationships and the complex nature of fire itself—comforting, destructive, explosive and short-lived. And of course the clothes which are pervasive in the story and which meant so much to my mother as a sign of her achievement and a disguise for who she felt she had been. And they were so beautiful, too.
7. You’ve appeared on television, in regional theater, and on Broadway. Can you identify one role you’ve played that has stayed with you over the years?
It would most likely be Frankie in The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. She is a lonely, imaginative, girl who wants desperately to belong to something. She just aches all over. I always identified with Frankie’s search for her identity, and her deep desire to grow. Coincidentally, my stepfather, Oliver Rea, produced the original Broadway production in 1950, with Ethel Waters and Julie Harris as Frankie.
8. One of your teachers in London, Mr. Jesse, advises, “Life is short, and one musn’t squander one’s talents, don’t you agree?” (pg. 76) What would you say to Mr. Jesse today if you crossed paths with him?
I would thank him for his encouragement, for teaching me to love words, and for showing me so many beautiful and useful things. And that I have tried to live up to his expectations for life.
9. What can you tell us about the process of writing Chanel Bonfire? Did you look through photo albums or use other methods to refresh your memory?
I did look at photos, of course, the ones that I have. Unfortunately, most of the ones of my teen years were destroyed by my mother. And I listened to music from the time period I was working in. During the first section of the book, 1960s in Manhattan, it was Astrud Gilberto and Frank Sinatra. Then, in early ‘70s London, it was T. Rex, David Bowie, and Elton John. Late ‘70s Boston was Cheap Trick, Tom Petty, Human Sexual Response, and Madness, of course. Music can really trigger memories for me.
I think I got this method from when I was acting; I’d pick a song or an album that I felt was the soundtrack to the character I was playing.
10. What are you working on now? Will there be a follow-up to Chanel Bonfire?
I am working on the sequel to Chanel Bonfire. The girl without a roadmap for life finds herself in the gritty, dangerous, exciting nadir of downtown New York City. As in Chanel, it’s darkly funny and terribly misguided—an eighties party girl looking for love in all the wrong places, with a thrift store wardrobe, punk rockers, buzz cuts, drug parties, cross-dressing, birth control issues, and run-ins with the FBI. It’s the story of a young actress in New York in the early 1980s, not only searching for Mr. Right, but also for an identity, a job, and maybe a free meal. Oh, and she has a crazy mother.