Rachel Bloom on Vulnerability and Creating Original Music for Her Book, ‘I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are’
For four years on the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rachel Bloom mined some of her own life, including her journey with mental health, for her fictional character of Rebecca Bunch. But, that character quickly became an amalgam of herself, her co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna and various people they knew and writers in their room as time went on.
Bloom found herself diving deeper into her own early development experiences for storytelling shows around Los Angeles, and in doing so, she began to realize she had a lot more to say that she couldn’t cover in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — especially when it came to the concept of “normalcy.” Through her new book, “I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are,” out Nov. 17 from Grand Central Publishing, she explores how the quest to be quote-unquote normal in her youth shaped her and what the concept means to her today.
“Because I come from a sketch background I really am a premise first writer, and I like a clean theme to direct me,” Bloom tells Variety about the process of writing the book.
“I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are” is mixed-format, in that some chapters are essays, some are takes on narrative stories such as fairytales, some are song lyrics, one very special one is penned from her dog Wiley’s point of view, and some are even poems pulled from the pages of Bloom’s childhood diaries. One such poem, aptly beginning with, “What is normal?” kicks things off in the opening pages.
“A happy, blissful ignorance is the best way I can describe what I thought the people around me were experiencing,” Bloom says, reflecting on what the childhood version of her thought “normal” was. “I thought there was a chillness to people around me that was like, ‘The party will start whenever’; ‘spelling is whatever, it’s OK if you spell something wrong.’ That was very elusive to me.”
Using the aforementioned different formats as ways to extrapolate different emotions, Bloom takes her readers back through time to the 1990s and early-2000s to describe her experiences with bullying (such as when, in seventh grade, a group of popular kids convinced one boy to ask her out, only to take it back hours later), to share her youthful experimentation with writing erotica (literally sharing pages of her diary here), to open up about the onset of obsessive compulsive tendencies, why she initially called it “The Bad” and why understanding it was an illness made her feel less alone, and to sing about finding her way through the arts.
(Yes, sing. Bloom collaborated with Jerome Kurtenbach and Jack Dolgen on original music, which will be released on her website, to accompany a chapter in the book. “It’s very specific to my experience, but the fact that it’s a musical, I think, will bridge that gap of being too specific,” she says.)
These stories, while deeply personal, also incorporate Bloom’s love of pop culture through references to everything from “Rent” to “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
“There is a nostalgia I have for the art that I consumed when I was in middle school, and I think it’s because when you’re in middle school you’re such a sponge for everything around you, and so there’s a formativeness to the things you take in,” she says.
Interestingly, though, one phenomenon that doesn’t get mentioned within the pages is *NSync, despite Bloom penning a movie about super fans of that boy band.
“There’s an important place that *NSync, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera will always have in my persona, and that’s actually what drew me to this movie. The *NSync story is the jumping off point but it’s about late-’90s/early 2000s nostalgia in general. What I want to do is a more biting, dirtier ‘Mamma Mia’ in the late-’90s,” she says.
Within the pages of “I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are,” Bloom also describes more recent emotional events, including worrying she was having a miscarriage while getting ready to perform at the Creative Arts Emmys in 2019 and losing her friend and collaborator Adam Schlesinger to COVID-19.
“Things that may seem vulnerable in the book I have talked about a lot in therapy, so there’s a skin — a protection — over certain things because I’ve already talked about them to death. There’s nothing in this book that I’m realizing for the first time,” Bloom says.
Bloom adds that everything in the book had to be a story she could “stand behind” and would not be triggering or otherwise something she was unwilling to talk about even further in interviews about the book. The former point is also partially why she opted not to name-names when discussing people from the past whose actions hurt her, despite claiming she would put all of her “enemies on blast” when she first announced her book deal in 2017.
“Even in the most vulnerable book there’s always stuff that’s left out. And for me that line is, what implicates other people? What tells stories that are not mine to tell? What would ruin my relationships with other people?” she says.
At the time of Bloom’s book announcement, she was already midway through her run at “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a musical comedy she co-created, wrote, produced, starred in and for which at that time she had already won a Golden Globe. (She’d later go on to win an original music and lyrics Emmy, as well.) But, she admits, it wasn’t until her editor, McKenna, and her husband writer-producer Dan Gregor read an early draft that they all said, “I think people are going to want stuff about ‘Crazy Ex,’” that she added in “curated” essays about her experience on the show.
“I couldn’t just have a tell-all book of what ‘Crazy Ex’ was like or at some point the book would veer into memoir territory,” she explains. “I did want to stay on theme. I could write a whole other book about that four-year experience, and Aline and I probably should talk about doing that.”
Bloom ties her experience on “Crazy Ex” back to her anxiety in general, describing how she was up all night before she had to go in and pitch the show, for example. And although many of these stories come with Bloom’s signature sense of humor, she admits she did not want hindsight or the growth she has experienced in the years since the events first occurred to color the stories.
“What I’ve learned, especially being in therapy for a long time, is your emotions are valid. So the trauma you feel at the time, sure I could compare the seventh grade prank to having my daughter in the NICU and be like, ‘Well in retrospect that wasn’t that bad,’ but no, at the time it felt awful and horrible and so I would never want to negate what I felt back then,” she explains. “And that’s something I want to be mindful of as a parent: the turmoil and trauma and emotions you feel as a child, even though they may seem, sometimes, silly in retrospect, they’re valid.”
Bloom shares that she hopes there are parents out there who will take excerpts from her book and show them to the kids in their lives who may be struggling — though she says there will undoubtedly be parts middle schoolers probably shouldn’t be reading. Then again, “I saw ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ when I was in middle school, which is not for children, and it helped,” she says. “It helped me because this girl was miserable. ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ was the closest thing I saw at the time to how I actually felt — this darkness, this feeling of being ‘other’-ed. So I hope my honesty helps other people come to terms with themselves.”