December 20, 2003
Welcome to Book Talk, a Daily News feature that includes interviews with authors and offers the option to listen to them by calling (818) 788-9722 or (310)273-1134, pressing six and entering a four-digit code. There is no charge.
This week we spoke with former disco queen and singer/songwriter Donna Summer (2449) about her new memoir, "Ordinary Girl: The Journey' (Villard; $24.95), co-written with Marc Eliot. In her book, Summer discusses the spiritual journey that followed those decadent days of disco. She revisits the '70s and describes how she was able to transcend her own "sex goddess' image.
Q: Your initial intention was not to make this book a straight autobiography. How did this end up becoming a memoir? Can you discuss your original vision for the book?
A: Well, I had been asked on numerous occasions to do this and had always turned them down. I had been working on my musical "Ordinary Girl' and people kept saying, "You've got to have a book, you've got to have a book.' I didn't set out ultimately to write an autobiography at all. As a matter of fact, I told them not to call it an autobiography and that it wouldn't be an autobiography. What I wanted to do was write my story, but through another person's eyes so that I could be free with it and unencumbered. I could change the names and everything, but it would still be my life. I would develop this character that would take you on life's adventures and then I could continue to write other stories that I made up. I wanted this character to be continually on a journey, but it didn't work out like that.
In the process of all of it, everybody kept screaming "autobiography, autobiography.' I said, I don't want to write a memoir. I'm too young. Maybe when I'm 90. Well, the book just sort of emerged as a memoir. There was a part of me that wanted to mentor people, but I didn't want to do it in a preachy way.
Q: Were you reluctant to tell real stories from your life that might paint the people you've encountered in a negative light?
A: I thought if I told it through a fictitious character, there would still be some truth in there that could benefit people, but I wouldn't have to deal with people's lives that I actually knew. I'm not really interested in belittling or pointing the finger at people.
The finger has always got to be pointed at me because all of my choices were my own. I take full responsibility for them. Even when I made mistakes and others were in a position to take advantage of me, it was my choice. I don't blame anybody for anything that's happened. If I misjudged somebody's character, then it was still my misjudgment. If a person took advantage, maybe they had a reason that forced them into the position of making an unwise decision. Sometimes people make choices, and unfortunately you're the victim even though it's not meant to harm you. But what am I going to do? I'm going to chase every nickel that somebody owes me? I don't think so. Life is way too short for that.
Q: Can you talk about the role music has played in your life. When did you start singing?
A: I just loved to sing, and I was asked to sing constantly. No one ever paid me. I wouldn't accept money at that time anyway. Somebody offered to pay me at church, and I would always turn it down. My mother would get mad and I'd say, "Mom, God gave me a voice, and I'm not going to charge him to sing.' That would be like somebody giving you a car and you charging them to ride in it. That just doesn't make sense. That was always kind of my internal philosophy. By the time I got to a place where I was actually going to be paid, that was kind of nice. I could afford to take it.
Q: How would you describe the years you spent in Germany?
A: Well I was there for eight years and I learned to speak the language, which I'm fluent in. It was great. It was like living in an environment where they didn't have slaves and there was no sense of slave consciousness. There hadn't been that relationship to black people. There was only a foreign understanding of what that was in our country. I was seen as an American, but my color was not a factor. It really opened my eyes and caused me to blossom as a person because I didn't see myself through color. I saw myself as me. My color just happened to be incidental. If you peeled the skin off, I'd still be the same me.
Q: What advice would you give to young musicians today?
A: I'd tell them to have an excellent lawyer that they trust and to learn about the business half of what they're doing and not just the creative half. That was what was really lacking for me. I think (Sean) Puffy (Combs) has made a great dent in that. I'm really proud of Puffy in a lot of ways. I don't know him and I've never met him, but he has become a cottage industry unto himself by hiring the right people.
When I grew up you were the artist, and the company was over there and it was separate. I wasn't vested. Jennifer Lopez is also an industry unto herself at this point. When I was young, I had lawyers who did not really represent me. They were really bending toward the company because they wanted to later make even bigger deals with them. There were millions of dollars at stake. I don't focus on this in the book too much, but if you're not careful, you'll end up with nothing.
Q: What is your view of the state of the music industry today?
A: There are so many artists who survive by staying in the business all the time -- 24/7. I never tried to do that. I learned years ago, by coming so close to having a breakdown, that I could not just pour it all out there and then try to figure out my life afterward. That just wasn't wise.
What I do is just kind of periodically close up shop for my own sanity. So many artists have that insatiable craving for attention. They think if they can stay on top of their game all the time that they'll be able to stay above everyone else. I don't think that's what happens. You can be giving 950 percent and then some obscure artist will just wind their way right into the picture and throw music into a tailspin. It has nothing to do with your best performance, it just has to do with the market and what people are ready for.'
© 2003 BookTalk is produced by David Knight. Questions may be sent to him at BookTalk, P.O. Box 57785, Sherman Oaks, CA 91413 or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org