Best friend shatters author’s sheltered existence

Jessica Young

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Thelma and Louise. Will and Grace. And Bunny and Pookie?

To Suzanne Kopoulos, author of “Little Miss Smarty-Pants: The hilarious, off-beat, poignant adventures of a wallflower-turned-wiseass … and the gay boyfriend who changed her life forever," her crazy chronicle of everlasting friendship rivals the most legendary duos in history.

Kopoulos, aka Bunny, recently sat down to reflect on her troll-like adolescent existence, dancing with drag queens and meeting the man who would change her life.

Q: You graduated from Columbia College with a journalism degree, so you have some writing background. What prompted you to write a book?

A: A lot of people expected it of me. I never expected it of me. But my mother, teachers, girlfriends. ... After every bad date I went on, they told me I had to get it down. That expectation was kind of a weight on my shoulders. In college, I hated my creative writing classes. It was like “OK, listen to the sound outside of the window and write 200 pages on that.” Not my style.

But what really lit a fire under me was hearing that the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, who is only a year older than me, fathered a child. It spurred a midlife crisis. This crazy rock star with no musical pedigree achieved so much professionally and settled down and started a family — granted with his 20-year-old girlfriend. It’s not that I wanted to have Anthony Kiedis’ baby. But I (surveyed) my life, and I was sick of making excuses for why I wasn’t taking the plunge. A light went off in my head.

I was in a rut. I play it too safe. I realized that I’m not done yet. But here I was acting like I was on the brink of retirement. We don’t have children, so I guess I also wanted to leave some part of me behind, too.

I grew up in Park Forest (Ill.), and one of the greatest things was going back to Rich South High School in Richton Park and giving my old teacher Lois Merritt, who was the first person to ever tell me I could write, a copy of my book when she was being honored.

Q: Why did you choose to go a more autobiographical route? Did you find it more or less challenging than fiction?

A: I didn’t really want to write my memoirs. It started out mostly as a collection of stories about growing up. My friend Phil is a sports writer, so I approached him with this idea. I thought he would laugh at me, but he was really supportive.

I churned out a 125-page draft and gave it to him. Out of there, he saw four sentences I wrote about my best friend, Jack (aka Pookie). He said “That’s the story I want to read. This is the part where you finally let down your guard and are emotionally honest.” After having lunch with Phil, I sat down in front of my computer, and the floodgates just opened up. It had clearly been percolating for 20 years.

I’m one of those freaky people who remember most dialogue. So I didn’t have to get creative trying to piece together our stories. I also love to write insanely long weekly e-mails to my friends telling them about the latest stupid thing I witnessed or something humiliating that happened to me. So I had a bunch of short stories, in essence, to draw from.

Luckily, I’ve had those all saved. And then some stuff was so scarring that it was branded in my brain.

I’m shameless when it comes to telling people humiliating things about myself, but I find it tougher to drop my guard and tell people how I feel. Chick lit like “The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club” by Laurie Notaro and “Bitter is the New Black” by Jen Lancaster has this great self-deprecating humor. I think there’s an audience out there for it, and I found that was a good style for me.

Q: In the book, Jack is a huge influence in your life. How would you characterize your relationship with him, and what were his thoughts about being a protagonist?

A: We just connected. We had that chemistry. We got each other. We didn’t even speak in full sentences. I didn’t know where I ended and he began. We complemented each other. He was a dreamer.

He grew up in Pilsen, but he had this amazing taste for an 18-year-old. He knew the best champagne, stationery, travel options. ... I was the practical one. I made sure he got to class on time. During our last semester at Columbia, we worked as a pair. I wrote press releases, and he did the photography for it. I kept him on track.

I took so much from him. I find myself still mispronouncing things like him like lingerie and champagne, which he would say phonetically. I can’t even spell them right. And without noticing it, I picked up his passion for photography. I’m obsessed with taking pictures of architecture. Especially Victorian farm homes. So he’s always rattling around in my head. The entire time I was writing, it was like he was whispering in my ear.

Q: “Little Miss Smarty-Pants” is also a coming-of-age story. Did you draw a lot on your awkward teenaged years?

A: I was a total geek in high school. I was the demon offspring of Cousin It and a troll. I was short, I had a boyish body, Gilda Radner-style hair down my back frizzed out to look like a shrub. Most boys would have rather done community service than date me. Here I was pining away to be a popular kid. I never drank. I was a square peg. Then I met Jack, and all of a sudden, I’m in gay bars with drag queens. Men are trying to pick me up before realizing I was a girl.

Q: You called your collection of stories a precursor to “Sex and the City.” How so?

A: Before I got married, I went through one demoralizing relationship after another. I hit rock bottom.

One bad experience my girlfriends will never let me forget is Balloon Animal Guy. He took me to some place that looked like Medieval Times on acid. There was a roving magician, and they freak me out. He asked what balloon animal I wanted. I was almost catatonic at this point and didn’t answer, so my date told him a poodle. So I came home with a pink poodle.

Cute Neighbor Guy was a straight guy who I was convinced would one day realize we were meant for each other. His refrigerator broke, so he had to come store his food in mine so it wouldn’t spoil. Of course he barges in when I was home sick with a terrible cold. So the place was a disaster zone with clothes piled everywhere, and I looked terrible. My cat emerges with my diaphragm, which was getting absolutely no use, because he had this fixation on rubber. And essentially the cat’s playing hockey with it. Cute Neighbor Guy starts stammering and sweating. When he came back, he brought his girlfriend with him to pick up his groceries, and I was like “Fine, be that way.”

Then there was a well-off guy I was dating for a while called Tuscaloosa Turd. His mom was OK with us dating, but when she overheard us talking about marriage, she faked a suicide attempt. She came in shrieking, writhing and foaming at the mouth. She pulled up the mini blinds, mumbling something about the pills she ingested and was going to pretend to jump. Then she did this practiced fall (down the stairs) where she ended in this dramatic crime-scene sprawl. When her husband and son came to see if she was all right, she didn’t realize I was still there, so I caught her in the act.

It was ridiculous.

Q: How have family and friends received the book given that they make cameos in it and you lay out your personal life for all to see?

A: My mother said “I’m proud of you, but next time, stick to fiction.” My dad said “I’m proud of you, but too much information.” My friends were very excited about it until the publication date got closer, and then I’d get phone calls like “Now, you didn’t really use my name, did you?”

My friend David thought the whole thing was a hoax and that I wasn’t publishing anything, so he teasingly told me to use a nickname for him. I called before the publication deadline and added Sex Bomb to the manuscript. After he realized the book was for real, we had to talk him off the ceiling. It will be interesting to see if my Christmas card list gets cut in half this year.

Everyone’s been very supportive though. I write a blog on MySpace, so all of my middle-aged friends have gotten their teenagers to create a profile for them. My friend Nancy gave a book to her hairdresser, and they are going to do a review at the salon next time she goes in for highlights. I’m making (Downers Grove) Mayor Ron Sandack, who I went to school with from first-grade through high school, read it. We both ended up in Downers. I was standing on the train platform one day and heard this laugh I hadn’t heard since I was 7. I knew it had to be him, and sure enough, I looked over and it was Ron with less hair.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from “Smarty-Pants”?

A: You never know when you’ll meet that one person who will change your life. The moment I met Jack, I knew. I was leading a shy, sheltered life, so I kind of knew my world would be turned upside down. I hope that everyone gets to experience the joy of having that one special friend who sees them for who they really are and who they can become. Until I met Jack, I felt invisible. He was the first person to really see me, and I will always be grateful to him. I’d like readers to see the book as a love letter to Jack.

Q: Any plans to write another one?

A: I’m pretty exhausted. I’d like to, but it has to come about organically. My mother has half-jokingly told me I should write about her. She’s a real character. But I’d have to call it “Madam Know-It-All.”

Downers Grove Reporter