Arts

Milton home is at the center of memoir by Jenny Slate and her father

Actress-comedian Jenny Slate collaborated with her writer-poet father, Ron Slate.

Actress-comedian Jenny Slate collaborated with her writer-poet father, Ron Slate.

After Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Amy Schumer drew millions of dollars from publishers to write their memoirs, it was no surprise that actress-comedian Jenny Slate also signed on to do hers.

What’s different, though, is that the Milton native chose to write her book for no money at all for the nonprofit Concord Free Press — and with her writer-poet dad, Ron Slate. But that doesn’t mean the star of films such as “Obvious Child” and “Zootopia” and a scene-stealer of television shows “Parks and Recreation” and “House of Lies” failed to profit.

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Writing “About the House,” a collection of essays revolving around her family home, forced the 34-year-old Slate to take inventory of her life at a tumultuous time when her marriage was ending, her career was rising, and the accompanying celebrity was sometimes less than a thing of joy.

“I wrote this book over a year of my life falling apart a little bit,” she said.

Slate likes privacy and tends to save her personal material for her standup comedy, which is why writing a big, commercial memoir never appealed to her, she said. But when Concord approached her with the idea of a father-daughter book, she was in.

Part of the appeal was the collaboration: Jenny and Ron had discussed writing a screenplay together, but they hadn’t had time to make it happen. This was a way to ensure they’d be writing partners.

“The way that my dad thinks has always been of a certain style,” Jenny said, in an interview with her father at the Milton restaurant Steel & Rye. “I’m really comforted by the way he lays his thoughts out.”

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The book was also Jenny’s chance to work with Concord Free Press, a local organization funded by donations, that has turned book publishing into an act of charitable giving. The eight-year-old institution, founded by Stona and Ann Fitch, prints 3,000 copies of each of its books and gives them away for free. In lieu of payment, readers who request copies are asked to donate to a charity or a person in need and allow the press to share the contribution on its website.

Free Press titles have included “The Next Queen of Heaven” by Gregory Maguire, “Push Comes to Shove” by former Black Panther Wesley Brown, and Stona Fitch’s own novel, “Give + Take.” Some titles, including Maguire’s, have been picked up by larger commercial publishing companies for a second run.

Free Press readers are expected to pass the books along to others when they’re done. That’s why Jenny and Ron have declined to sign copies, to ensure that no one is tempted to keep them.

On its surface, the book is about the family’s Milton home, built in 1898 by Daniel O’Keeffe, Georgia’s cousin, and purchased by Ron and his wife, Nancy, in 1980. In alternating chapters, Ron and Jenny take turns writing about memories attached to each room, from the basement to the dining room to Jenny’s mom’s studio.

Fitch said he and his wife, Ann, who edited “About The House,” knew that a collaboration would result in a unique story, but the book wound up being a more intimate and compelling family memoir than they could have anticipated.

The stories feature illustrations by Karl Stevens, who recreates everything from a ghost in the home to a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio from Jenny’s childhood bedroom.

Jenny said she recognized early on in the process that by delving into memories of her life in the house, she was also making sense of the hows and whys of her life in the present. In writing about her bedroom, she revealed what it was like to be a child who longed to be a famous actress, idolizing women like Amy Irving and Gilda Radner. It was a way to reflect on who she has become.

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“I played that I was an adult actress, that I had choices about what to do with the hours in the day, and that I was also living a life in which I myself was chosen by others. I played that I ate a small meal and took a long walk. That my room was an apartment and our lawn was Central Park.”

In the essay “Picnic,” ostensibly about her lawn, she refers to the breakdown of her marriage to filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp, which became a subject for tabloids, particularly once she began dating actor Chris Evans, the “Captain America” star who was raised in Sudbury. “Picnic” is a vivid description of the lawn where she had birthday parties as a child, and where her family eventually threw her a wedding party, but it’s also about how things ended.

She writes, “. . . I didn’t know that my new husband and I would slip out of love or something of the sort, like when you’re on a swing and the rope breaks and you hit the ground hard, a tear driving out of each eye maybe even before the pain zings up your spine.”

Slate wrote the children’s book “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me” in 2011with Fleischer-Camp. It spun out of their “Marcel The Shell” animated shorts, which drew millions of viewers online. The two are still collaborators on creative projects, and are now working on a “Marcel” movie.

Jenny Slate in 2015.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Jenny Slate in 2015.

For Ron, the book also presented a chance to reflect. In the book’s first essay, Ron writes about how he and his wife were married in 1971, before their senior year in college. The plan? “We will roam, we will be elsewhere . . . we will be discovered to be ourselves by ourselves and by others.’’

Some years later, the couple decided to have children and return to Eastern Massachusetts (Nancy grew up in Brockton, Ron in Quincy) to be closer to family. Then the house in Milton became the center of the family’s universe. It was the place where Ron would watch his daughters performing plays in the den; where he would fall in love with a family pet; where he would watch his wife perfect her pottery until she couldn’t anymore.

Ron also writes about their plans to move on from their longtime home. It comes as he looks at his garden: “. . . the spread of bleeding heart in the space between house and garage, where lily of the valley unfurl and flower and climbing roses bloom — all of these were here when we arrived . . . Now that we are approaching the inevitable moment where we leave this lovely place, I don’t think anymore about planting new things.”

A little over a month after the release of the book, it’s shaping up to be one of the most successful publications in Free Press history — with popularity measured in requests and charitable donations. Since the book became available mid-November, it’s generated almost $40,000 in charitable gifts, the highest amount of donations in the quickest amount of time. Beneficiaries have included the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN) of South Carolina, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and the ALS Association.

It has also inspired Jenny to write more about herself, even if she’s the only one reading. She said that because of “About The House,” she finds herself journaling.

“It’s something I didn’t do before,” she said. “It’s a way of looking back and seeing my footprints.”

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@globe.com.
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