Sandra Tsing Loh on Bringing 'The Madwoman in the Volvo' to the Stage (Q&A)

THE MADWOMAN IN THE VOLVO - Playwright Sandra Tsing Loh - H 2016
Courtesy of Ben Horak/SCR

The humorist revisits her life-exploding extramarital affair and gender issues in Hollywood, as well as "President Hillary."

In 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic, a study of such 19th century authors as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters coping with the Madonna-whore dichotomy that often restricts the portrayal of women in literature. In some ways, we’ve come a long way from a polemic that barely scratches the surface of human complexity, but in most ways we haven’t. The “mad woman” refers to Bertha Mason, Rochester’s wife who is kept locked away by her husband in Jane Eyre. L.A. author and humorist Sandra Tsing Loh traded an attic for an automobile in her book, The Madwoman in the Volvo, which looks at misadventures and uncommon sense surrounding menopause.

“It used to be thought of as 'the change.' You were healthy and productive, and fertile and wonderful and useful. You turn 45, 50, you become desiccated. You’ve gotten old and now your life is over,” she told The Hollywood Reporter a few days into run of a theatrical of her book at Orange County’s South Coast Repertory Theatre (through Jan. 24). “A woman is only fertile the middle third of her life. Most of her life is not fertile, and she’s up to other things. So instead of menopause being the change, fertility is the change.”

Loh’s own change came in 2007 when she left her marriage after having an affair with a guy she met at Burning Man. She made no apologies for the indiscretion, instead celebrating it in essays for The Atlantic with titles like "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off" and "The Monogamy Trap," in which she asks, “How hard and boring is it to be faithful?”

“Now I’m a woman approaching 50 who doesn’t have a marriage or family and is living in a 750 square-foot rental unit with a Black & Decker coffeepot, and everybody’s embarrassed for me. So why am I now viewed as a pathetic middle-aged woman who will live alone with a dry vagina and will never find love?” she asks, facetiously. “If I were in The Bridges of Madison County, my character would be Clint Eastwood. I don’t need anyone. All the sheep of the world have gone back to their marriages, but I’m an adventurer like Clint Eastwood. But nobody sees it that way.”

Here, Loh gives THR the loh-down on gender issues in the home, Hollywood and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

What were the challenges of taking The Madwoman in the Volvo from book to stage?

In theater they want you to go deeper. When you have an affair, how do you tell your spouse? What does that scene look like? That has become part of the fabric of the play. So there’s stuff that’s really exposing where I come off as a bad person.

Has it been cathartic?

Marriages can be tough, we all have secrets in our marriage where we have moments sitting on the bed and going, "This is really not working. What will I do?" When you put it out in theater, it’s funny how people respond. Theater is a safe place to tell these stories.

Your articles for The Atlantic polarized readers. How do you view detractors?

When that article came out I was at this extreme low point. I had decided to have this affair that seemed such a good idea at the time that I was so in love with this person. And then it totally went up in flames. And it’s like waking up in The Hangover and you have a tattoo on your face. America does not like stories about married mothers having affairs. It’s a transgressive tale.

Is it a reflection of a double standard?

When I was on public radio in San Francisco, men called in and said, "It’s such a double standard! If I went to Burning Man and had an affair and broke up my marriage, I would not be on a book tour, believe you me." And I think that’s a good point. To be honest, I sort of view men with more sympathy. There used to be a cliche about the guy who turns 45, gets the red sports car and the young girlfriend and has a midlife crisis, and we would look down on that. If you’re in a marriage for 20 years and if your wife is into knitting and cats and is wearing a bathrobe and curlers to bed and has not interest in sex for 10 years, it totally makes sense that you would try to do something different cause nobody has to be considered dead at 45.

What kind of feedback have you heard from women readers?

Women are afraid to talk about menopause because we want to appear more like men. We don’t have mood swings. Well, everyone has mood swings. I think of Robin Williams, David Foster Wallace, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Spalding Gray, all brilliant men but in a way as fragile, if not more fragile, than women because men have this huge range of feelings as well that I think they’re not allowed to acknowledge in some way.

Those are all men with some relationship to the entertainment business, where gender issues defined much of last year, a slight change from your own experience in TV back in the 90s.

Back in the network television days, I was 34 and they said, "Say you’re 31." It didn’t matter cause Les Moonves wanted to buy a sitcom based on my life and my book and I had a one-person show that was sold out. So they turned it into a sitcom and they suggested these two former Doublemint twins star as me. And I couldn’t be on screen at all. Les Moonves says, "No, her face cannot be on there at all!" What’s that about?

Maybe things haven’t changed so much?

For young women it’s still pretty hard cause they’re still in the ingénue box of "Does this look like a young woman we all want to have sex with?"’ Young actors are not looked at as exacting as the women are. But we live in a fantastic time, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Helen Mirren, even Joan Didion is a fashion model. Sarah Palin, God bless her. But you know what, pitbulls with lipstick, riding snowmobiles, shoot a moose, whatever, great. That’s what you want, a bandwidth so big that there can be fart jokes or bed-wetting jokes. It’s a bigger world.

Big enough for a woman President?

She sat at the Benghazi thing for 11-12 hours with only her embroidered pillow and yoga. To go through that sort of grilling when Republican nominees can’t go for five minutes without huge gaffes — Hillary is menopausal but she’s beyond the reach of hormones. She’s something we haven’t seen before. Estrogen isn’t the liability, testosterone is. You look at her husband, she will never make that kind of mistake. The Clintons will change the way we look at the sexes for sure, in a good way.