Editor's Note: Betsy Gilbert is known to her legion of fans as "Tallulah." An enormously talented lady, Ms. Gilbert is a regular contributor to Doc's News whose features are notable for her keen eye for things that are worthy and excellent.

 

Louise Shaffer seems impossibly cool on a recent day in Arkansas that is so hot, it’s sent local weathercasters into a frenzy of descriptive one-upmanship.

Entering the air conditioned oasis of That Bookstore in Blytheville (yes, that’s really the name and it is worth remembering) for a book signing and reading from her well-received novel THE THREE MISS MARGARETS, the actor-turned-author appears impervious to the heat. She casually asks directions to the ladies room, explaining that she spilled coffee on her white blouse and needs some quick damage control. If people in the store were braced for an explosion of diva ‘tude, they quickly unclinched. She reappears, having simply turned the blouse around.

Shaffer is good at turning things around. She sees opportunities in experiences that would send a lot of people running to the shrink’s couch or simply burying their heads under the covers. Three months after winning an Emmy for her portrayal of the complicated character Rae Woodard on ABC’s popular soap “Ryan’s Hope” in the early 80s, Shaffer got the axe.

“I hadn’t even gotten the engraved trophy delivered,” she recalls with a shrug. “It seems that I had committed the ultimate sin for a daytime actress: I turned forty.”

A setback to be sure, but the Yale Drama School-trained Shaffer, a big believer in the theory that we all have a second life act in us, was hardly down for the count. She soon added bulk to her already impressive acting resume--which included Broadway roles--landing guest appearances on nighttime dramas and re-entering the soap realm as Erica (Susan Lucci) Kane’s memorable stepmother on “All My Children.” But the rich roles were becoming few and far between, so Shaffer stepped back and took stock. Who knew the complexities of daytime drama better than she? So, really, who better qualified to write soap scripts than she?

A new career was born. Shaffer wrote for “All My Children.” She wrote for “As the World Turns.” She even wrote for former castmates on “Ryan’s Hope” before that show was canceled in 1989. And she got Emmy nominations for her efforts.

“Writing for soaps is stressful, very stressful,” she describes. “I was expected to churn out 30 to 40 page scripts every week and that can get you a little crazy.”

Throughout this period, Shaffer had the seeds of a novel in the back of her mind. Having lived with her husband in Georgia for nine years, commuting back and forth to New York for work, the Connecticut native got an insider’s look at life in a small Southern town. Fictional characters became clearer and clearer, the story of the three Miss Margarets began telling itself in her head and Shaffer finally came to the inevitable conclusion that she had to fight any self-doubts and write this book. So she did, with no paying gigs as safety nets, and two years later THE THREE MISS MARGARETS was born as a completed manuscript.

Shaffer’s successful writing voyage from manuscript to published hardback should give hope to every fledgling novelist out there who’s walking around clutching a dog-eared draft. While the publishing world has changed drastically from the land of dreamy dreams that launched Faulkner and Fitzgerald to a big-buck business too often dictated by bottom line agendas, talent is still valued. Shaffer contacted a literary agent she had known for several years, he read her manuscript and liked it - - so much so that he wasted no time agreeing to represent her. Then he steered THE THREE MISS MARGARETS into the offices of Random House and the rest is, as they say…oh, you don’t need a cliché to know the rest. It’s a happy ending and a happy new beginning.

So, this hot Arkansas day finds author Louise Shaffer winding up the last leg of a whirlwind book tour before heading back home to her husband and menagerie of cats and dogs in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley. As she begins reading from THE THREE MISS MARGARETS, finely-tuned Southern ears in the audience prick up. A Connecticut Yankee in King Cotton’s Court is going to attempt an authentic Suthun accent, something that’s been done so badly by so many before. Any doubters are disappointed. Shaffer’s Southern voice rings true as she delivers believable dialog from different characters as only an accomplished actress could. When she finishes, newly-won fans applaud enthusiastically, then queue up to have their books signed, many asking the inevitable soap-related questions. Shaffer answers them all with patience and good humor.

Life is good for this woman who’s had a varied and volatile career in the not always wonderful world of entertainment, but as Shaffer likes to say, “There are no lemons, only ingredients for lemonade.” That’s an eyebrow raiser for a cynic, but facts don’t lie. Sales of THE THREE MISS MARGARETS, now headed into its second printing, are impressive. The glowing reviews are mounting. A sequel is in progress, part of a three-book deal with Random House. There is talk of a movie adaptation. And future acting gigs are not completely out of the question, if the right part comes along.

So let the world take notice: Louise Shaffer is in the house with plenty to say about life’s second acts and a great second career act as proof of hers. As they say on the soaps, tune in for tomorrow’s episode. After all, who’s to say there aren’t third acts?

 

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