Award-winning actress and best-selling author, Marlo Thomas, chats with MSNBC.com about her new book, “The Right Words at the Right Time,” a collection of wit and wisdom from more than 100 innovators, thinkers and cultural icons in which each one tells a story of a crucial turning point in their lives brought about by the right words at the right time. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Ms. Thomas
Question from Krista: How did you get all these people to contribute to the book? Did you just call all of your friends and ask them?
If these are all your friends I’m going to fall out of my chair.
Marlo Thomas: It’s a two part question. Yes, I called every single person but no they’re not all my friends. Many of them are my friends, some I had met. I’ve met Ted Koppel, but I certainly couldn’t call him my friend, but he’s somebody that I’ve met many times. Mike Wallace I know very well. So there are some I knew very well, some I hadn’t met. I’d never met Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, I’d just admired her from afar.
I called every single one because I knew that was the only way to get them to say yes. All of us are sent requests all the time to be part of some group activity whether it’s a book or whatever. There are just so many request you end up having to decline most of them. But it’s harder to decline when someone calls you personally on the phone. So that’s why I thought that would be the best way. And then I could also explain to them what the book was about and what good I thought it would do in the world and that the money would go to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital so that it wasn’t just a commercial endeavor.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Did you have some that didn’t make it into the book?
Marlo Thomas: I didn’t put in about six of them because they just weren’t really meaningful enough for the reader. They just didn’t say enough. I felt all of the pieces that are in the book, there are 108 of them, they all, I thought, would touch a nerve in different people in different walks of life and different ages. I didn’t want to put in just “filler” so I didn’t put in about six of them.
Question from Rebecca Masterson: Some of the entries sound very conversational and some sound literary. Were they all submitted in writing or did you transcribe interviews for some of them?
Marlo Thomas: Many people wrote them themselves because many of them are writers like Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, Cameron, Crowe, Conan O’Brien, they all wrote their own pieces. Some were interviewed, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, the first ladies Laura and Barbara Bush were interviewed. I just depended what their talents were.
I felt though that we worked really hard editing them so that they would be as first person as possible. Everyone got a chance to see their interview back and make notes on it and change things so it would be in their own words.
Question from Mark Daza:
Where did you get the idea for this book?
Question from Nikki:
Was this book meant to be an answer/antidote to 9/11?
Marlo Thomas: No, it’s not an antidote to 9/11 because I made the deal for the book in July, and I began working on it in August. September 11th happened shortly after I started but I think that it certainly came out at a time when people were sort of recovering from that time. My plan was to have it out in May in time for graduation, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. That’s where I was headed. I didn’t know about 9/11 at the time.
I had received a letter from a father of a 15 year-old girl, she was about to turn 16. She was a great fan of “Free to Be You and Me,” which was a book and record that I had done many years before. I could read between the lines that this father was desperately looking for advice from somewhere for a daughter who seemed to be out of his control. He asked for a story from my life that might guide and advise her on her upcoming 16th birthday.
So I thought about a story from my own life and I write about it in the book. When I was about 17 and struggling to be an actress, I was doing “Gigi” in a little playhouse in Laguan that Bette Davis had founded. It was my first big lead and I was very excited to have the part.
My excitement was short lived because all of the reviews and all of the interviews wanted to compare me to my father. Would I be as good as Danny Thomas? Would I last as long? Would I be as popular? And it was really quite devastating. I hadn’t expected the comparison. I knew people would mention that I was Danny Thomas’s daughter, but I didn’t think people would compare me to a man who was 25 years older than I was and a big star.
Anyway, it was very scary and I went to my father in tears and I said, “I never thought I’d say this but I want to runa way from all of this and change my name, I don’t want to be a Thomas anymore. I love you but I don’t’ want this name.”
And my father, who was a very wise man said to me, “I raised you to be a thoroughbred. And thoroughbreds run their own races. They don’t look at any of the other horses. They just wear their blinders and they run, and that’s what you have to do. Don’t you look at me or anybody else, you just run your own race.”
And a couple of nights later at the theater a big white box arrived. Inside it was a pair of old horse blinders with a little note. And the note said, “Run your own race, baby.” Those words have been a very important part of my life. Like a little motto I’ve carried around in my head. Whenever anything has happened in my life where I haven’t quite know what to do, I’ve often thought to myself, “Is this my race or somebody else’s race that I’m running?” And it’s really pulled me back up to my own reality.
So anyway, I sent off this birthday card with my little story in it, and after I did it I started thinking about it and I said, “I bet a lot of people have a story like this where they’re at a crossroads and they’re not sure what to do and somebody comes along and says just the right words at the right time.” And I started asking friends of mine and sure enough they did.
So I decided I would put it in a book as a book to help other people, students and grown-ups and whoever to just have a sort of reference book of mottos that have gotten other people through their crossroads.
Question from mary: I have read this book and it was truly wonderful and inspirational! Bravo!!
MSNBC-Will Femia: Is this book meant to be inspirational or instructional?
Marlo Thomas: I think I wanted the book to be filled with mentors and role models, kind of a map for life. I think it’s inspirational and informational. And I think it’s very emotional. I felt that everybody who wrote or was interviewed really gave a piece of themselves. I was very moved by how honest and soul-searching the pieces were. I think it’s a lot of things. Yes it’s informational and inspirational and emotional, and what I’ve heard from people who’ve read it is that they’ve said, “Reading the Shaq O’Neil story really gave me something to nosh on,” or “Reading the story about Gweneth Paltrow’s boyfriend who didn’t give her what she needed really got me through the pain I’m feeling in my relationship right now.” That’s the kind of mail that has been coming through.
Question from Chrystal: What right words do you feel your father heard that drove him to be so instrumental in the fight against Lieukemia?
Marlo Thomas: I think that my father, I don’t know what his words were and he’s not here now to answer, but I know that his belief in the words that he always said in his own lifetime was that no child should ever die in the dawn of life. Those were the words that he said himself.
I know that’s what he was feeling when he started work on the hospital. He came from a poor family, and although none of his 9 siblings had died, they had had accidents and one of them lost an eye. They’d not really been able to have medical care. My father, in fact, was delivered by a horse doctor. I think he always felt health care for children was sorely wanting and he wanted to do something to rectify that. He used to always say that it was unacceptable that a child should die in the dawn of life.
Question from Roland: Which one is your favorite?
Question from sunny: The Rudy Guiliani piece brought tears to my eyes... do you have a favorite, other than your own, of course?
Marlo Thomas: I love Giuliani’s piece because it’s so much about finding a way out of tragedy and sadness. All of us have that in our lives personally and in a more global way in terms of what happened on 9/11. We all suffer loss and we all have to deal with painful things in our lives and our families.
His story was about a woman who’d lost her son in 9/11 and was going to go forward with her daughter’s wedding several months later. Someone in the family said, “How can you do this?” and Rudy Giulliani asked, “How do you have the strength to go forward?” She said, “Because life is both things. We, of course, will mourn my son, but my daughter needs the joy of her marriage and we must celebrate that as well.”
He said that’s what he took with him to the press conference that day when he didn’t know what he was going to say to the nation and to the city to try to bring us back from this terrible pain and fear and anger that we were feeling. He started to focus on all the good things that had happened that day. He said that the city is standing, the people are helping each other, that there have been many, many brave people helping each other, that no one has looted, that this has been a city that has really embraced each other and tried to make repairs immediately both physically and emotionally.
Another story that really affected me was that I’d assume that everybody’s story would be positive like mine, and Mohammed Ali’s story came in and that surprised me because his words were negative.
He had a teacher that said to him when he was growing up that he would never amount to anything. When he won the gold medal when he was 19 years old at the Olympics, he brought the gold medal back to the school and put it on the teacher’s desk. He said remember me, you said I’d never amount to anything, well now I’m the greatest in the world.
That’s just a great example of somebody carrying with them… Here’s a guy that’s so gifted, so disciplined, so talented as an athlete and yet what he was carrying across the world and across those years were these negative words. But he learned to do something with them. They galvanized him, they didn’t defeat him.
I thought that was great because we all carry words in our head that are positive and negative. What I learned from doing this book is that we have to turn the volume up on the positive words and learn how to deal with in some way the negative words, make peace with them or use them to galvanize us into action the way they did Mohammed Ali.
MSNBC-Will Femia: September 11th and its anniversary certainly seemed like the kind of “right time” that could have used some “right words.” Were you disappointed that no one really rose to the occasion to provide us with memorable words?
Marlo Thomas: I thought that Rudy Guiliani did. I thought that he was right there for us, absolutely. When he came on television and said that we must keep our eye on the fact that having just left the woman who said life was two things, he went with that feeling in front of the television cameras and said there is much to be thankful for today. We are a city that rushed to the rescue and proven who we are as people. We are strong and compassionate. No one has looted in this city and we’re a city who are concerned about taking care of the wounded people and the people who have lost other. So I thought Rudy Giuliani did have all the right words at the right time that day.
Question from FriendsFan: I noticed your TV daughter Jennifer Anniston is in the book. Are you friends with her in real life? Have you seen her Emmy yet?
Marlo Thomas: No, I haven’t seen her Emmy, I live in New York and she lives in L.A. But she is a friend and I love her dearly. She’s a wonderful young woman. In fact, she gave me a book party for this book.
Question from Pam: Was there any major themes in the book that help define a right time and right words?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Having compiled this book, do you have a stronger sense of pivotal times in life?
Marlo Thomas: It changed my thinking in this way: My mother always used to say actions speak louder than words. I always bought that, that you could tell more about a person from what they did than what they said, and actions speak louder than words. But after having collected all these stories and talking to all these people, I really do believe that words speak very loud and for a very long time.
I don’t know that actions last as long as words do. We really carry them in our heads. We hear the voice of people who said negative things to us. We hear the voice of people who said, “You can do it, you can do it.” I think that changed my mind. I always just accepted that actions speak louder than words, but I think words speak really very loud.
Question from Lisa Kroner: As a parent I read the book with great interest. One of the main lessons I got out of it was that a little encouragement goes a long way. Many of the people in your book remembered words of encouragement from childhood through their entire lives. I hope more parents and teachers read your book.
Marlo Thomas: I think that is a wonderful comment. That’s another lesson I learned with the book, how so many of these words were from childhood and teenage years. I don’t think parents and teachers have any idea how much their words stay in the heads of these children and teenagers. Mohamed Ali is a perfect example of it. Shaq O’neil is another one, on and on. So many of those words, certainly my words when I was 17, many words came from childhood.
It’s something for us all to think about. I’m part of the Ms. Foundation, I helped found it, and we have a take our daughters to work day we founded many years ago. We have a motto with that that says, “Be careful what you say, girls are listening.” And it’s true, girls are listening and boys are listening. Whether we know it or not they are listening and watching a learning about life from us. So one needs to be very careful because they’re on record. They’re recording all the time and they’re going to end up playing those tapes in their heads for the rest of their lives.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Although some of pivotal times came in adulthood, so another lesson may be that it’s never too late. Old dogs and new tricks.
Yes, some did come during their careers and I think Candace Bergen’s came from her daughter. So yes, it’s never too late to learn something new. Al Pacino’s came after he had a big success.
Question from HIP_POCKETS: Do you feel every person has had a pivotal moment like these?
Marlo Thomas: One of the things I found while doing talk shows on the radio and taking calls, many called in to give me their right words. And it became even clearer that we’re all carrying these around.
And yes, I think that if everybody just looked into their lives, just took the time to look into their lives, they would see that there are some words in their lives that really have a great affect on them to this day, whether they be negative or positive.
And I think it’s a really good exercise for everybody to look into themselves and try to figure out what those words are. And if they’re positive words, as I said, turn the volume up on them. And if they’re negative words, try to figure out what to do with them so they don’t defeat you.
Question from romka: Hi Marlo, I was wondering if you are religious. If so, what is your faith and how do you practice it?
MSNBC-Will Femia: The book itself is very “earthly.” By that I mean the words of inspiration are not all Bible quotes.
Marlo Thomas: I was raised a Catholic, I went to Marymount. I’m a believer. I certainly do believe in God and I pray. I don’t forget to pray my thanks as well, for my health, my husband’s health, and the health of our family, and to have strength and to have peace of mind. I think that’s the way in which I practice in a formal way. And I make visits to church. As a Catholic girl, you almost never get over making visits, lighting candles for my parents who are gone now and for other special intentions for myself, my family, my friends, and out of thanksgiving.
Question from Paul Dallas: I thought the book would be more about people who hit rock bottom and what brought them back. It is interesting to think that you don’t need a crisis in your life to change it. Sometimes you’re in a rut and you don’t even realize it. Thanks for the book.
Marlo Thomas: Yes, I didn’t know what I was going to get. When you say “the right words at the right time” and “at a crossroads in your life,” they could have been more down and out. And some people were. Al Pacino was sort of teetering on alcoholism.
There were instances in the book where people were teetering on the brink of not being successful human beings. And I don’t mean successful in their work, but successful as human beings. But they didn’t come out as down and out stories. The stories I asked for were crossroads, how did you make your decisions, how did you take the right road, what helped you, what are your mottos. I think we all carry these little catch phrases, the little custom make catch phrases in our heads. Like mine is “run your own race,” and Shaq’s is “later doesn’t come to everybody,” and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s “sometimes it pays not to hear everything,” and on and on. Everybody has those moments that kind of shapes who they are.
Question from Heather Mayer: Do you see a parallel between this collection and Free to be You and Me? I think a lot of what these people were inspired to do was be themselves, always a good message.
Marlo Thomas: I don’t think it’s similar because Free to Be was an entertainment for children and wasn’t personal. This is really coming from many people’s personal experience. But if in the end it does end up that it’s about being yourself or finding the best in yourself, having confidence in yourself then I guess all messages do end up being in that area.
Question from rarepixel: Marlo, I have found that writing in a journal helps me cope with many things. Do you journal or have you used journaling to work thorough things?
Marlo Thomas: Yes, I often do. I don’t write in a journal every day but when I’m going through something that’s difficult like the death of my father, I wrote in my journal for several months. So I got back and forth to it when something’s happening. It’s not a daily diary but more a place where I go when I need to put down what I’m thinking and feeling to help myself get to the next rung on the ladder so to speak.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Do you often find that the “right words” are your own?
Marlo Thomas: There are words that come out of my own head and heart. Sometimes though, something will come to me and I’ll think oh yes, my mom said that or my father said that or I read something like that.
I remember just recently something was bothering me and I was thinking about it when I woke up in the morning and I was tossing at night with it. I was really having a hard time with it. It was a grievance, somebody did something to me and I was very, very disappointed in this person and felt heartbroken by it. I remembered something my father said a long time ago when someone had behaved badly toward him.
I said, “Daddy, how come you’re nice to that man when he wasn’t very nice to you?”
And he said, “I do not hunch my back with yesterday.”
And I thought about that in the middle of the night and I said, “oh, of course, I’m carrying this on my back.” My father was right, and it really did help me dissolve this thing I was carrying on my back.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for joining us today Ms. Thomas, can you give us some closing comments before we have to let you go?
Marlo Thomas: I think the most important thing, after having done the book and some time having passed now, that I feel that I’ve learned and I want to pass on is that we all need to stop and ask ourselves what are we carrying around in our heads and is it keeping us from being who we want to be?
Many times when we are in a rut or stuck or not getting what we want out of life, it’s because we have a different image of who we are and what we are capable of. And much of that is shaped by something somebody told us.
I think it’s a very good exercise if we just sit quietly in a chair or take a walk in the park or ride a bike or whatever and just try to begin to put together in your head what is something you say to yourself? Do you call yourself stupid? Do you call yourself lazy? What do you call yourself when you’re mad at yourself? What do you say to yourself when you need encouragement? Have you got something in your head for that? That’s what I think is really important to do.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for joining us, I really appreciate you taking the time.
Marlo Thomas: Thank you, it was enjoyable.