Berkeley author Peggy Orenstein draws inspiration from raising daughters

Peggy Orenstein is a Berkeley-based author who will be reading from her latest book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” at Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco on Tuesday. She is also a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine.

Who had the biggest influence on you in your life?

Fred Stutzman. He’s the guy who invented the Freedom program for Mac that blocks your access to the Internet for up to eight hours at a stretch unless you reboot your computer. I would never get anything done if it weren’t for Fred.

Where do you find inspiration?

My work usually springs from a deeply personal question or observation. So I get my inspiration by just noticing stuff. Observing. Going through daily life, thinking about why we do what we do, the way we live, the choices we make, and asking myself, “What does this mean?” So “Cinderella” really came from raising my daughter, watching her enter the culture and what that culture was telling her about what it meant to be a girl.

What one book or piece of writing has had a large impact on you?

My favorite book of all time is “Mrs. Mike” by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. My brother stole it from his junior high school library and I found it in his bookshelf when I was 11. I don’t know if he even read it. It was based on a true story about a 16-year-old Boston girl around 1900 who was sent to Canada for her health, married a Mountie, moved to the Yukon, and lived a life of adventure, tragedy and joy. A big life. Years later, I actually tracked down the authors, whom, it turned out, lived in Greenbrae. We became dear friends.

How did you come to write? When did you realize that writing was going to be your career?

I can’t remember why I took a journalism elective in 10th grade, but our first assignment was to write a “sights and sounds” piece — go somewhere and write down what we saw and what we heard to create a narrative of the place or event. I went to the annual tent sale at the local ski shop, which was always a huge deal — I grew up in Minnesota. And it was like a light bulb went off in my head. Seriously. I thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” And I never wavered, never even considered anything else.

How would you describe the kind of writing you do?

You can analyze the time in which we live in a lot of ways — through the lens of power, through the lens of politics, through the lens of fame. I look at it through the prism of ordinary life. At the New York Times Magazine, I contribute to a column called “The Way We Live Now.” I think that pretty much sums it up. I look at how ordinary lives tell the big story of the time in which we live.

How would you describe your new book?

It’s a personal and reportorial look at the culture that’s encouraging girls to be obsessed with beauty and play-sexiness at younger and younger ages. I have a daughter, and I was just shocked by what was out there for her to play with, from the Disney Princess 21-piece makeup kit to the “girls” version of Scrabble with f-a-s-h-i-o-n spelled out on the cover to the make-your-own messenger bag kit with the iron-on transfers that said “spoiled,” “brat” and “pampered princess.” I mean, what in the world was going on?

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