Melissa Francis rose to fame as a child star playing Cassandra Cooper Ingalls, the little girl adopted by the Ingalls family on the prime time hit series Little House on the Prairie. Francis, who is now a television business journalist with the Fox Business Network, chronicles those coming-of-age years in her new memoir Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite Show (Hachette). The book follows her 2012 Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter. Francis, who majored in Economics at Harvard, and now works on shows like The Five, Outnumbered, Happening Now, and America’s Newsroom, lives in Manhattan with her husband and their three children. She reflected on what she learned in her Little House on the Prairie years with the National’s John B. Valeri.
Q: Writing Lessons from the Prairie necessitated looking back on your childhood with adult eyes. Tell us about that process of reflection and what, if anything, you were surprised to discover (or rediscover) about those years in hindsight.
A: As a kid you think your childhood is perfectly normal. It’s only later that you realize what was bizarre about your particular upbringing. Granted, my life in front of the camera, starting at the age of roughly six months old, was more peculiar than most. But I think many people can relate to the experience of vowing to do everything differently with your own children. Then you become a parent and say, “Oh.” You realize parenting, marriage, and life are not as easy as righteously declaring you won’t do what was done to you. That’s where my own personal chant comes in: “I’m doing the best I can!” I must say that twenty times a day and that phrase was largely the inspiration for this book. I live those words with every fiber of my being and still come up short, much of the time. However, I’m done feeling guilty, and that’s what I hope my readers take away. I think my kids know I’m killing myself to make their lives healthy and happy. I think my husband knows I’m doing the same for our marriage. I know the bottle of dirt-cheap white wine in the fridge knows what’s up. That’s about where I am. I’m also too tired to pretend to be something I’m not. In Lessons from the Prairie, I lay it all out there in a candid, provocative, hopefully hilarious manner, so readers can pick up a few nuggets of wisdom I gleaned the hard way, get a hearty laugh as I take yet another pie to the face, and know they are far from alone in their daily struggles. Don’t lean in, friends. Sit down and take a load off instead. Preferably with a glass of Mommy’s Time Out Pinot Grigio. Life’s short and often more hilarious than we realize.
Q: We hear about so many child actors who struggle with transitioning to a “normal” adulthood. Despite your own difficulties (which you detailed in Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter), you reinvented yourself as a respectable career woman (and mother & wife). How did your experiences on Prairie help to develop your real-life character – and in what ways in particular did Michael Landon influence you, both professionally and personally?
A: Michael Landon left a deep impression on my life. Yes, I was very young, but that set was so different from any other in Hollywood, I feel it today as vividly as if I were still bumping down that dusty road in Simi Valley, California. They say CEOs set the tone from the top, and Michael’s tone was practical. Hard working. Divas, don’t bother applying. No one rolled up his sleeves and dug in with more gusto than Michael, and he was the Big Dog, so we didn’t dare slack off by comparison. He loved loads of laughter and plenty of good vittles, but we were always mindful that the light not escape before we’d done the shot right, or the laughter died, rather abruptly. He had one serious work ethic and no actor, make-up artist, or key grip could survive in his presence if he or she didn’t exhibit that same value. What a gift to a hungry young worker-bee like myself! What an education! And what a feeling of accomplishment when he was happy with the product and the nation sat down in front of their televisions, adjusted the rabbit ears, and agreed. Every Monday night at 8pm. That satisfaction in a job well done became my drug, and still is.
Q: You left “show business” to study economics at Harvard before bringing that expertise to the world of broadcast journalism. How have you conceptualized the notion of fiscal responsibility throughout your life – and in what ways was this shaped by the instability of childhood?
A: In Hollywood, unemployment and financial insecurity is on the other side of every wrap party. Actors are always about to be out of work. That intense instability left me with a need to be working as many jobs as I could all the time. In college, I worked as a hostess, peeled vegetables in the bowels of my dorm, drummed up paid internships, and managed a tech support team (my kids still don’t believe that one since they’re the ones I drag out of bed at night to fix the printer for me), among other jobs. And I kissed every paycheck that came in, big or small. I’m always thinking about ways to monetize whatever is around me. I’m a true capitalist to the core! And I’m proud of it, dammit.
Q: You have adopted the “economy of effort” approach in endeavoring to achieve a semblance of balance. What is this philosophy, how do you suggest it be applied, and why is it important to recognize the inevitability of one’s limitations sooner rather than later?
A: No one has it all. I’m not even sure what the hell that phrase means. But you’ll drive yourself insane trying to do everything. You have to figure out where to best spend your effort, and then dig in and make that count. What’s a waste of time and what deserves your shoulder to the grindstone.
Q: Can you speak to the inherent conflicts(s) between the tenets of journalism and faith? Given that you are a believer in both, how have you managed to resolve the two?
A: Faith is about falling into the arms of what cannot be proven. And journalism is about taking nothing on faith. Those are opposite ends of the planet for sure. I’m a natural journalist. An old boyfriend once said my need to work out everything with my own pencil was my most annoying trait. I guess I’m lucky I didn’t marry that guy because I still need evidence for everything. Good old logic or someone’s word simply isn’t enough to satisfy my incessant questions and curiosity. But the love of my family, my children and my husband, solidified my faith in God though. That was my evidence. How else could I have become so blessed? So complete? In my mind, such joy cannot be random. In most journalistic circles, faith in God undermines your credibility as a journalist. Good thing I’m too old and tired to care what other people think!
Q: Like so many, you’ve been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. How have you seen things change with the progression of the #MeToo movement – and what advice would you give to women who feel that their success is in their silence?
A: I was scheduled to be on the Today Show with Hoda and Kathie Lee the morning after Bill O’Reilly left Fox. They have both been so kind to me through my whole career, but I knew they wouldn’t be worth their salt if they didn’t ask about the situation. I had faced the question so many times already in the wake of the Roger Ailes scandal, “What’s wrong in the water over there at Fox?!” I said at the time that there were predators at every network. NBC too. Everywhere. I remember the ladies looking a bit shocked. Many months later, the truth of my statement came to light and I was satisfied I’d gone on the record before the #MeToo movement even began. Predatory behavior was everywhere in my industry, but I really do think that’s basically over. Mainly because of the internet and social media. A victim doesn’t need a publication to take the huge risk of publishing his or her story. A victim can blog or tweet to get the ball rolling. As a result, deep pockets have a harder time intimidating the world into silence.
Q: What appeals to you about the writing process – and how do you hope that sharing your experiences might empower others to take ownership of their own life stories?
A: I’m a creative person and I always need an outlet. Writing is where I feel the most passion, the most satisfied. Next up, I’m going to write a scripted show. Just watch.
John B. Valeri wrote about books for Examiner.com from 2009 to 2016. He currently contributes to the Big Thrill, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Element, Mystery Scene Magazine, the National Book Review, the News and Times, the Strand Magazine, and Suspense Magazine. He made his fiction debut in Tricks and Treats, an award-winning anthology published by Books & Boos Press in 2016, and will be featured in My Peculiar Family Volume 2—Celebrations, slated for publication in Spring 2018. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com.