The Call That Changed My Life

(July, 2004)

by Billie Letts, author of Where the Heart Is

"Billie?" she said when I answered the phone.


"Hi. This is Oprah Winfrey."

I couldn't speak.

"Congratulations," she said. "I've selected your book, Where the Heart Is, for my book club."

I still couldn't speak.

"Hello?" she said, checking to see if I was still on the line.

I knew I had to say something, anything, but all that came to my mind was the timing of her call.

"It's a wonder you caught me at home," I said. "You see, my husband and I have been staying with our son in California for a few months while I've been working on a screenplay, but I got worried about our dogs here even though the dog catcher feeds and waters them every day and I know he takes good care of them, but I'm afraid that someone might come into the yard and leave the gate unlocked and the dogs, they're named Doug and Sweetie, might get out and get hit by a car, or someone could take them to sell to labs that use dogs for experiments, which happens more than people might think, but I doubt anyone would steal them to keep because they're mixed-breed strays, and by the way, Doug came from Chicago, a street dog that was tied to a fence in an alley during a freezing rain, so my son's girlfriend?"

If Oprah hadn't laughed, I would have told her how Doug and Sweetie got their names, listed all their favorite foods, mentioned that Doug was a jumper and Sweetie was?

* * *

I had watched several of Oprah's dinner parties where the book discussions took place. Sometimes they were held in the author's house or in a lovely New England inn, or even at Oprah's home. And the dinners were almost always prepared by her personal chef-gourmet meals served on delicate china, the table covered by fine linen, a centerpiece of cut flowers.

My dinner party was held in the snack bar of a Wal-Mart just outside Chicago.

Oprah wasn't there when my husband and I arrived, but Martha Williams, Darlene Stark, Gail Christian and Mary Ann Perri, the four women who had been chosen to discuss my book, were. We quickly formed a bond, prompted in part by the anxiety of being on television and saying something stupid, and in part by our excitement at meeting Oprah.

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When she did arrive, the five of us were standing together as if we were in a receiving line. Oprah went from one woman to the other, shaking hands as she introduced herself. I was rather puzzled when she passed me by and went to one of the tables in the snack bar where her hair and makeup people were waiting.

I believe it was Martha who whispered to me, "Billie, doesn't she know who you are?"

"No, we've never met."

Seconds later, Jill Adams, the producer of the show, spoke to Oprah and pointed to me.

Oprah, smiling, called to me across the room. "Hey, Billie," she said, "I thought you worked for Wal-Mart."

So much for celebrity.

* * *

Our instructions were simple enough: follow Oprah to the counter where the food was laid out-corn dogs, chicken nuggets, burgers, typical Wal-Mart fare-then follow her back to the table and take the seats we'd been assigned.

The snack bar had been cordoned off from the rest of the store, but at the end of each aisle shoppers had gathered to get a glimpse of Oprah. Inside our area there looked to be a hundred people-the film crew, Wal-Mart executives, and many members of Oprah's staff. And cameras, oh so many cameras pointed at us and so many microphones hanging over our heads.

All five of us, the readers and myself, were petrified when we heard someone shout, "Cameras rolling," but Oprah was relaxed and friendly as we took our seats at the dining table. We all watched her and followed her lead. When she put her napkin in her lap, we did the same. When she took a sip of water, we took a sip of water. I think we may have had some small talk as we prepared to eat, but when Oprah turned to me and said, "Billie, would you say the blessing?" all talk ceased. Absolute silence.

I froze. I thought my heart would stop. I even thought about faking a fainting spell. But there was nothing to do but pray in front of those cameras to an audience of millions.

"Of course," I said, my voice quivering.

We bowed our heads and I prayed.

Afterwards, I asked my husband what I'd said, as I couldn't recall one word.

"You did fine," he said, "Just fine. But it was the shortest blessing I've ever heard."

* * *

When the meal began, so did the discussion of my book. Now, Oprah could eat, think, and talk at the same time, and do it all with grace, but the rest of us looked like frightened kids sent to the principal's office for misbehaving.

We were, of course, intimidated by the cameras, awed by being in the company of Oprah Winfrey, and terrified at the prospect of eating. What if we had chicken in our mouths when she asked us a question? What if we had mustard or ketchup smeared on our chins or dropped food in our laps or got lettuce stuck between our teeth?

So while Oprah ate, the rest of us watched her and tried to offer intelligent responses to her questions, tried to contribute what we could to the discussion.

Once, I tried to take a drink of my tea because my mouth was so dry my upper lip was sticking to my teeth, but my hand was shaking so badly that tea sloshed out of my glass and onto my plate.

When the meal ended and the discussion came to a close, my plate was as full as it had been when we started, only now my salad, chicken, and fries were islands in a sea of tea.

* * *

Certainly, the mileposts in many of our lives are similar-the births of our children, the deaths of those we love, family ties, and friends. All are life-altering.

But in my life, following those events, nothing has been more significant than Oprah's selection of Where the Heart Is. The book has been read around the world by millions of people, and while I am pleased with my story, and thankful to my agent and Warner Books, Oprah is the reason for most of those readers.

She has altered the reading habits of multitudes. She has reinvigorated an interest in books that many seemed to have lost. But more than her influence on readers, she has become a kind of lightning rod of passion for many of us to have more satisfying lives, lives in which we can think better of ourselves.

Oprah is one of my heroes. Not because she chose my novel for her book club, but because she works in a myriad of ways to make our world a better place.

Long before that phone call came, before that voice said, "Hi. This is Oprah Winfrey," I had already learned to like her, to trust her...just the way we feel about friends.

Posted with permission of the publisher.