The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Word by Word: An Interview with Anne Lamott

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 10, 2010 6:20PM

AnneLamott__credit_James_Hall 2.jpg
Photo credit: James Hall
Anne Lamott takes on subjects with capital letters [Alcoholism, Motherhood, Jesus], but she does so with self-effacing humor and ruthless honesty—a decidedly lower-case approach to life’s “Big Questions,” noted a reviewer for Newsweek, and with her seventh novel, “Imperfect Birds,” the 56-year-old writer takes on another complicated issue: teenage pharmaceutical drug abuse.

Lamott—a former columnist for Salon and author of the New York Times-bestselling Grace (Eventually), Traveling Mercies, Blue Shoe, and several other works of fiction and nonfiction—will be a featured author at this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest.

Chicagoist caught up with Lamott via e-mail where she revealed her mantra for writing fiction (hint: it’s inspired by a famous ad campaign), why she secretly covets an iPad, and her favorite things about Chicago.

Chicagoist: “Imperfect Birds” draws on neighborhood stories you’ve heard about privileged teens who have lost everything due to drug addiction. You’ve said that you and your son Sam have actually known kids who have overdosed on OxyContin or jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. As you were hearing these stories, when did you realize you wanted to write about them through the character of Rosie?

Anne Lamott: More than drugs, the stories of young girls "hooking-up" at house parties captured my attention. It was so awful to learn that teenage girls accepted this behavior as just part of the scene. As I said in the book, it felt like the Women's Movement had never happened and this was where the idea for the third book in the Rosie trilogy began—in the horror and disbelief that girls were colluding with this demeaning and dangerous behavior.

C: Many of the questions that you are asked by people attending your readings have to do with questions on faith or questions about the writing process—both of which you’ve covered in your writing. With the publication of Imperfect Birds are you getting a lot of questions from parents seeking advice on helping their teens cope with drug abuse?

AL: Yes, there has been a huge response from parents about teenage self-destruction, whether through alcohol, drugs, or sex. Many parents have come to my readings and told me, both at group level, and privately, that their kids have died of overdoses, or are completely scaring them to death.

C: You’ve written about your relationship with your son, Sam, specifically in “Operating Instructions” and you’ve written about your experience with addiction and recovery—is Imperfect Birds in any sense autobiographical, about Sam or you?

AL: I was an alcoholic teenager and drug user 40 years ago; and I did many interviews with teenage girls who had come through drug addiction—or were trying to recover, but slipping and sliding.

C: You’ve said that every writer is a “parrot” and a “thief.” Do your friends and family often end conversations with “don’t put this in a book or an essay for Salon, Annie!”

AL: I use almost EVERYTHING I hear, unless it is intimate and private. My friends know I will not use what they tell me in my work. I do not write about my most private and intimate stuff, either. I write about things I think, hear, imagine, remember, if I know they are universal experiences or reactions.

C: As I mentioned in an earlier question, many readers seek out your thoughts on the writing process, particularly individuals who have read the amazing “Bird by Bird.” Did you learn anything new about your own writing process in working on Imperfect Birds?

AL: I've been doing this for so long that I pretty much know how to get the work done, and I know most days will not be exhilarating. I know you don’t wait for inspiration, and that you just do it, to quote Nike. I know that novels are exasperating and make you crazy, while short pieces may cause all the same things, but at least be done in a week, instead of in two years.

C: Have you purchased an e-reader such as an iPad yet? Do you think these devices spell the end of publishing or do they simply provide new ways for authors to get their work out there?

AL: I don't have an iPad, although I secretly covet one—especially for the e-reader. I would never get a Kindle, because of my loyalty to books and to the publishing industry. But when I travel, it would be great to have one, basically weightless, source for reading, instead of 5 hardback books in my suitcase. I'm not sure if I will get one, though. I've been publishing for 30 years now, since I was 26, and there was always something that was going to destroy the book industry—and never has. I absolutely do not think about it at all (except when I am secretly coveting an iPad....)

C: I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on the popularity of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter and location-based social networking sites like Foursquare—within the context of spirituality, Anne. In your experience, are these tools bringing us closer to each other and, perhaps, closer to God, or are they driving us all father apart, somehow?

AL: I really do not have any interesting thoughts on Twitter and Facebook—I don't have or do any of these things. My friends seem to love them, though. My son thinks I am courting professional disaster by not having a website—he says, "Oh, my GOD, Mom," with real alarm. But it's just not my style.

C: You’ll be in Chicago for our annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest. What is the most common question you get asked at events like this? I wonder if you cringe when people refer to you sometimes as “The People’s Author” at these readings, or, as you wrote once, you’ve learned to “endure the beams of love?”

AL: The main question people want to ask is, “How is Sam?” which I love to answer. (Sam is amazing). I've never been referred to as “the people's author” at an event, and in fact, I just heard that I had been referred to this way, somewhere—once? I love it—would love if it were true, and I were the people's author, but I don’t think it's true. I have learned, indeed, to bear the beams of love, pretty much, more or less, lots of the time.

C: You’ve been to Chicago before. Do you have any favorite restaurants or other haunts that you enjoy when you are in town?

AL: I love Chicago, and its independent bookstores, but mostly I just cruise around with the Midwest’s great media escort, Bill Young, and he points out all the most gorgeous or historical spots, and we talk about everything on earth and laugh ourselves sick. He is probably the main reason I love Chicago, although my best friend Doug lives here, too (He teaches at Northwestern). So it's like, two, two-mints-in-one.