Monday, March 17, 2008

An interview with Susan Marks

After a surprise comment on my post, “The Home Legion!” by Susan Marks, author of Finding Betty Crocker, I decided that this gal not only wrote upstanding books, but was pretty personable as well. She graciously agreed to an interview, vie e-mail.

As for a bio, I thought an auto-bio would be most tasteful. In her own words:

When Susan Marks was a child she won a huge, pink Betty Crocker cake in a cakewalk, and she never fully recovered. Susan parleyed her love for cake, pop culture and women’s history into the book, Finding Betty Crocker and documentary film, The Betty Mystique.
Susan is also a writer/producer/director with her own production company, Lazy Susan Productions. She is currently writing a screenplay about a bridal shower that turns into a “freak show with punch and presents.” And Susan is dabbling in the dark side with her a new documentary film about dollhouse murders (currently in production). In 2007, Susan made Mpls./St. Paul magazine’s short list of “Five Local Filmmakers to Watch.” (She was the only female filmmaker to make the list.)

What was it about Betty Crocker that interested you for the subject of your book?

I used to be a tour guide for the Historic Milling district in Minneapolis (Minnesota Historical Society). I talked about Betty Crocker on my tours and everyone seemed to get excited when I mentioned that she was "born" in the milling district. At first, I really didn't get it. I kept thinking, "people are sure buying into this advertising - she isn't even a real person!" But then I realized there was a rich story that goes way beyond advertising. Betty had history.

As I read your book, it seemed to me that the voice behind Betty Crocker truly was concerned about her fellowman.

Do you mean "fellowwoman"? ;)
Hey, mass consumerism includes men too, right? :-)

It’s hard to forget that her primary reason for existence was to peddle flour. At one time she even had her own radio show in which she gave advice that seemingly conflicted at times. What is your opinion on corporate 'advice columns'? (For lack of a better term).

Yes Betty was a bundle of contradictions just like all of us. Her #1 purpose was to sell GMI products and that was no secret to consumers, but there was a human side that appealed to many because of the genuine advice given by real woman who worked at the Betty Crocker Kitchens. After World War Two, that personal touch faded due to the consumer products boom that swallowed the nation.

You work with various forms of media, including documentaries. What are the most fascinating aspects of this form of communication?

I really love working in documentaries because it is a challenge to fuse together a compelling story, music, and visuals. I love seeing it all come together.

What is your worst cooking disaster ever?

I made a chiffon cake (Betty Crocker recipe) and it turned out vile. Still not sure what I did wrong.

Are you a good cook? Any advice for the culinary inept?

I'm not a great cook. I have a 55 year stove/oven and that really holds me back.

You must have had to study areas other than General Mills in order to write your book. What do you think life was like for women going through WWII and all the baggage that came with it (such as rationing)?

Yes, I studied a lot of American Women's History as an undergrad and grad student. I devoted a whole chapter to WWII because it was such a rough time for women. The rationing points system wasn't as straightforward as one might think. Nothing was easy, some foods were discontinued in addition to rationing, child care was a huge issue, much was up in the air and unknown, families were torn apart and uprooted. I heard a woman who was a new bride in the war era say, "We never got used to it."

Betty Crocker's staff tried to help women who were depressed due to the stresses of the wartime era, but I won't spoil it, it's in the book!

I think that Julia Child would be a fascinating subject for a film. (Check out a brief bio at Did you know she was a spy living in China for the secret service? COOL!)

I didn't know this!

How do you choose your subjects?

I pick projects based on the fact that I can't get them out of my head.

You are working on a book about Band-Aid bandages. How interesting! Can you share any fascinating facts?

The band-aid book didn't turn out to be all the fascinating, mostly because Johnson and Johnson doesn't have an archive. They didn't save anything. I feel really lucky that General Mills did! Without their archive I wouldn't have such a rich story to tell in both my film and book.
But I can share that my current project, a documentary film on dollhouse crime scenes is pretty fascinating. Frances Glessner Lee, "the patron saint of forensics", created dollhouse murder scenes to help train detectives to interpret crime scenes in the 1930s and 1940s. The dollhouses are so well done that they are still used today in training homicide detectives and FBI agents.

So, there you go! Isn't Susan a fantastic person?

Thank you, Susan.

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