Q&A: A chat with the queen of advice

Dear Abby will speak at the annual Power of One fundraiser April 8 at the Hilton San Francisco. The Dear Abby column is written by Jeanne Phillips, who is Jewish, and was started by her mother, Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips. It is reportedly the most popular and widely syndicated column in the world.

J. reporter Stacey Palevsky spoke to “Abby” by phone from the columnist’s Los Angeles office.

If you were a journalist, what question would you ask to kick off an interview?

I would say, before we get started, tell me about yourself. That way, I know with whom I’m having the pleasure. And I do that — very often.

This is somewhat of a silly question, but if you could only eat one traditional Jewish food every Saturday for the rest of your life, would you choose chopped liver, gefilte fish or matzah ball soup?

I wouldn’t choose any of them. My taste runs more to rugelach and charoset. And frankly, what I fantasize about is a hamantaschen filled with charoset — doesn’t that sound wonderful?

What do you usually talk about (or like to talk about) when asked to speak at a Jewish function, especially when the event is designed for women?

I don’t discuss anything different for Jewish people than for gentile people. Most people are interested in what I do and how I got to where I am, and that’s what I will be talking about, but talking about it in a larger sense.

What kind of larger sense?

Well, the theme is “power of one.” I believe we all have within us the power of one. And I plan to talk specifically about people I know personally who have made a difference. I’ll also talk about what I do, because what I do makes a difference.

How do you know? Do people follow up with you?

It’s fascinating to hear what happens to people after I answer their questions. They’ll often call or write me to tell me my advice has made a difference. And I’ve actually been able to save some lives.

Do you find yourself giving advice in a social context a lot? When has that gotten you into trouble?

I do find myself giving advice in a social context because I’m really interested in people, and people understand that very quickly after they meet me. People who don’t know I’m Abby have started spilling their troubles to me. I look them in the eye and they know I’m willing to listen. It hasn’t gotten me in trouble. It’s just created more work for me.

You started helping to answer questions when you were 14. How did you get started?

I asked my mother how I could get money for allowance. To which my mother responded, “What do you plan to do?” I shrugged my shoulders and said I didn’t know. My mother said, “Well, I get mail from teenagers, so why don’t you answer some? If they’re good, I’ll mail them out, and if they’re not good, you’ll do them over.”

Did you ever write an anonymous letter to your mother?

Never. There was never a question in our house I couldn’t ask and get a straight answer to.

How did you decide to take over the column for your mother?

I had been involved with the column in various ways, but in the late ’80s, when my mother began having creative difficulties [Friedman Phillips has Alzheimer’s], I began filling in and writing for her. It was a slow transition.

Did the transition feel natural?

I was too busy trying to help my mother to think about a transition. Eventually, I asked myself: How could I let what my mother dedicated her adult life to vaporize? I simply wouldn’t do it.

How do you decide which letters make the cut?

I’d have to say it’s intuitive. If it appeals to me, if it’s entertaining, interesting or educational, I’ll put it in.

Do you ever answer questions that aren’t published?

There are questions that get answered by my staff that are not printed. Sometimes I also call people.

You call people?

Yes. Every once in awhile I hear from somebody who is just really down. I call them and we have a good laugh together.

How do people react when they answer the phone and it’s Dear Abby?

First they’re in disbelief, then they’re usually very pleased to hear from me. And you know, we start talking like old friends. Because they know me. If they’ve been reading my column for years, we are old friends.

Who do you turn to if you don’t know how to answer a letter?

I have a whole Rolodex of people I can turn to. A know-it-all I am not.

How does your personal life inform the advice you give? Or, how does the advice you give — the quandaries you’re asked to consider — influence your personal life?

My life experience informs the answers I give; it couldn’t possibly be otherwise. People see things through the filter of their own experience.

And how do you separate your work from your life?

If I have an intense day, I have a husband who puts his arms around me and tells me that everything will be OK. And then we get a stiff drink. [Abby laughs.] I think you have to relax and let it go, because if you don’t, you’re of no use to anybody, even yourself.

If you have a problem, who is your “Dear Abby?”

My husband.