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Sheila Nevins

On Her Own Terms

by Joseph Montebello

During her tenure as president of HBO Documentary Films, Sheila Nevins has produced more than 1,000 such films and is one of the most influential people in her business. She has been recognized with more than 65 Primetime Emmy Awards, 46 Peabody Awards and 26 Academy Awards. She has also won 32 individual Primetime Emmy Awards, more than any other person. Despite this illustrious career she has remained tantalizingly behind the scenes, never talking about herself—until now.

During her long career she has told other people’s stories; now she is telling her own, but not in the usual way.

“You reach a certain age,” explains Nevins, “and think how much time do I have? I should tell people what I really think.”

At the suggestion of her friend, Joni Evans, a literary agent who started a website called wowOwow (which stands for Women on the Web), Nevins wrote a piece about the weekend when she had to entertain her son, his friend and the girl’s mother. It got more response than either woman expected. That encouraged Nevins to write a few more pieces.

“Then an agent from William Morris endeavor expressed interest in a book,” Nevins said, “but he said I’d have to write at least 20 more pieces.”

So, every weekend Nevins and her husband, Sidney Koch, would arrive at their home in Litchfield and she would sit down to write. She began to tell stories about the challenges she had faced: being a working mother, what it’s like to be an older woman in a youth-oriented business, the joys and heartbreak of first love, the endurance of a happy marriage, the pain and joy of raising a special child, living through a facelift.

But Nevins, being Nevins, could not write a conventional memoir. What she has given us are short vignettes, some written in the first person, others with a narrator, and still others in the form of free verse.

Is she the character in every story? “I had to make the book work for me, to tell my story, but more as an observer, which is what I’ve been in my career. These are pieces of my life, some are funny, others are sad, ironic, but all are honest.”

It took Nevins two years to complete You Don’t Look Your Age. But writing that last sentence and turning in the manuscript was not the end of the project. The publisher also planned an audio version and asked Nevins read it. She refused but came up with a unique solution.

“I suggested that I could get well-known people I had worked with to read the pieces for me. I was told that was a great idea but they wouldn’t be paid. I didn’t think that would be a problem, so the first person I approached was Christine Baranski. I asked if she would read the piece on my experience with Larry Kramer. She agreed. That meant one down, only 44 more to go.”

Nevins has put together an amazing group of celebrities–an acknowledgment of her popularity and of the quality of the pieces. The cast includes some of the most important actors, writers and television celebrities: Marlo Thomas, Gayle King, Gloria Vanderbilt, Anderson Cooper, Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Alan Alda, Glenn Close, Martha Stewart, Diane von Furstenberg and Katie Couric, to name but a few.

You Don’t Look your Age will be on sale May 1st. While Nevins is not doing a tour, she will do selected appearances on television and at the 92nd Street Y in conversation with Rosie O’Donnell.