Books: Anne Lamott Talks About Her New Novel
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The timeless advice of write what you know has served author Anne Lamott very well. She's weaved the strands of her own complicated life through a series of memoirs and novels. Some of them, like "Operating Instructions," the tale of her pregnancy and first year of motherhood are very frank and very funny. Others, like her newest novel, "Imperfect Birds," are honest and sometimes frightening, giving us a portrait of a family fighting to save a child from drug addiction. But readers may be forgiven if they sometimes cannot tell which story is fiction and which is real because Anne Lamott brings her own experience and exquisite style to all her writing. It’s a pleasure to welcome author Anne Lamott to These Days. Good morning, Anne, thanks for coming in.
ANNE LAMOTT (Author): Hi. Good morning. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Now your novel, “Imperfect Birds,” opens with a line, ‘there are so many evils that pull on our children.’ That’s quite a first line. I’m wondering, is this a book at least partially about the anxiety of parenting?
LAMOTT: Yeah, a lot of the book is about the anxiety of parenting but it’s also about all the different forces that are, I think, pretty malignant on the children, on the youth, on kids. The pressure to get into college, for instance, a degree to which kids’ entire childhoods are shaped by the need to get into a great college and especially now with the economic downturn to get into a state college or university from which they can go to a graduate school from which they can begin immediately doing well. There’s no more time to find yourself built into the system. But I also find that the presence of the drug dealers and the message to use and the message that the dope isn’t dangerous and that your parents smoked so it’s not a problem, I find that to be a kind of an evil. And the businesslike efficiency of the drug dealers, to me, is evil.
CAVANAUGH: You have talked a great deal in other novels and in your memoirs about finding faith and I wonder what kind evil you’re talking about. Do you believe in sort of an evil, supernatural malevolence?
LAMOTT: I’m not sure. That question is talked about a lot in the book so I don’t really have a very short answer to it but sometimes I do. And I find that presence of darkness inside. You know, like the Beatles’ song, “Within You and Without You,” I really see it everywhere in the messages of the culture, that you’re really of value if you are doing fairly well. If you’re a woman, if you look a certain way and if you somehow, against all odds, manage to keep your weight down. And if you haven’t, then you’re a woman of lesser quality and whatnot. If you’re a girl, you need to look a certain way. If you have this problem, you really need to get rid of it if you are going to be esteemed at all by those in power who are still, for the most part, straight, white males. I find – There’s an old Christian saying that the voice of the devil is sweet to hear, and as a recovering alcoholic and addict and person with a million food issues, I’ve never experienced the dark voice that’s saying that I’m a loser or that I’m going to fail. The voice always says so sweetly, oh, Annie, I want to help you quit smoking, too. I want to help you get off the bottle. And we’re going to do that together, it’s just that right now is not a good time, and I have a way out of the immediate pain, just trust me. That’s what I would use the word devil as a metaphor for because it’s the voice of seductive self-destruction. And the children are most vulnerable to it. In our county, in Marin, the amount of daily marijuana smoking of this extraordinarily strong marijuana is very common, very, very common. And the neocortex of children and youth is not developed until you’re 23 and the neocortex is where you make decisions from. It’s the center of your judgment. And so these kids are smoking dope every day and their parents feel powerless because the parents smoke dope, too, and the kids use that against them.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit, for people unfamiliar with Marin County, where your book, “Imperfect Birds,” is set, tell us a little bit about the community. It’s a community you live in, right?
LAMOTT: I was born and raised there, yeah.
LAMOTT: I grew up in the town of Tiburon when it was still a railroad town in the fifties. Marin is the county right on the north of the Golden Gate Bridge, so there’s San Francisco, the east bay, and then there’s Marin. And it’s mostly a very wealthy enclave of suburbs and a lot of alternative lifestyle. I personally live in a pretty sixties part of the woods and Rosie and Elizabeth Ferguson live in this same town, coincidentally. What are the odds? And it’s a very green, very progressive, very ecological and culturally – it’s like a lot – it’s a profound and beautiful little place to live. It’s exquisitely beautiful but it’s also always, always had a horrible drug problem. In the sixties, a lot of my brother and my friends died of the drugs the kids were taking then. They – One of them ran into the ocean in San Francisco on LSD wanting to fly, one of them fell off a cliff at Yosemite wanting to fly, one of them drowned in the Belvedere Lagoon. They routinely jumped off the bridge. And they had massive nervous breakdowns. And the same is true in 2006, I think, when I started this book, that the kids of Marin County, they’ve discovered – Well, first of all, the dope in America’s so strong, so strong, one hit dope. But, of course, they don’t stick to one dope. Ecstacy came up in the mid-eighties and it has taken down whole corridors of the high school. The kids are doing it every weekend, often both days, both weekend days, and all night. Oxycontin has become a massive problem. We’ve lost two kids that I know from – one grade ahead of Sam. The golden child of the class ahead of Sam’s is now at Napa State and I don’t know that he’ll get out from a combination of Oxy, Ecstacy and alcohol. And the prescription drugs have just come into their own. The kids have parties where they really do bring stuff from the parents’ medicine chest and they are also, many of them, have been diagnosed from an early age of having ADD, ADHD, their parents got diagnosed because they wanted the Adderall or the Ritalin, which is pharmaceutically pure speed. It’s very, very helpful for a certain kind of child with a certain kind of brain chemistry but teenagers discovered it’s an excellent study aid because it keeps you up at midterms or finals, keeps your mind much clearer than it would be. A lot of women, a lot of Hollywood is using Adderall and Ritalin to keep their weight down. It’s a terrible drug.
CAVANAUGH: You write – you set the scene of what you’ve been talking about where in Marin County with the problems that the teenagers have and with the anxiety of their parents so well in the opening paragraphs of your book. I wonder if you would read for us…
LAMOTT: Oh, sure.
CAVANAUGH: …just, you know, it just – it sets the scene so beautifully. So Anne Lamott will read from us (sic) from the very beginning of her new novel, “Imperfect Birds.”
LAMOTT: Okay, I’d just like to say before I start that instead of the word ‘parental anxiety’ I would really use ‘terror.’
LAMOTT: Terror when your kids don’t come home, terror when you can’t find them. And they’re always – they’re such brilliant liars. They’re always explaining how the battery ran dead, there wasn’t any reception, how this really doesn’t mean what you think it does, what it means instead is actually something good. And so it’s really terrifying, and it’s terrifying to watch your kid get onto that dark road and to not know what’s the truth versus what’s the secrets and lies. So, anxiety at best.
CAVANAUGH: Terror in reality.
LAMOTT: In reality. Okay, so I’ll just read a couple of paragraphs.
CAVANAUGH: That’d be great.
LAMOTT: Okay. ‘There are so many evils that pull on our children. Even in the mellow town of Lansdale where it is easy to see only beauty and decency, a teenager died nearly every year after a party, and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses or jail. Once a year, a child from the County of Marin jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Elizabeth Ferguson looked around at the Saturday morning comings and goings of the townspeople and saw parents who had lost or were losing their kids, kids who had lost or were losing their minds. She and James sat with their coffees and newspaper on the wide steps of the parkade which was what everyone in town called the parking bay in the center of town, making it seem a lot more festive than it was. It was a big parking lot that abutted the boulevard that ran from San Quentin Prison to the east, all the way to Olema on the Pacific Coast. There was a bus kiosk on the north side and two weathered sets of steps, the one where Elizabeth Ferguson and her husband sat reading across – and another at the far end across from the movie theater. Elizabeth felt large and worried. Even sitting down, she was taller than her husband and her otherwise dark, thick hair was slightly more gray-streaked. But Rosie was taller than either, almost 5’11”, blonde hair, strapping and utterly fabulous except when they wanted to disown her, like now.’
CAVANAUGH: That’s Anne Lamott reading from the first paragraphs of her newest novel, “Imperfect Birds.” I want to let everyone know Anne Lamott will be signing copies of “Imperfect Birds” tonight at 7:30 at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla. I just wanted to hone in on Marin County. It’s a county, it’s a place, it’s an idea that so many people think of as perfect. If I lived there, if I had that lifestyle, everything would be fine.
CAVANAUGH: So why do you think the idea of drug abuse is so much a part of this seemingly idyllic lifestyle?
LAMOTT: I think it’s the truth in any of the communities that you would say are seemingly idyllic. I’m staying in La Jolla overnight and it is heartbreakingly beautiful and I’m sure that after the show today you and I could go to the junior high there, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders, we could score anything we wanted. The kids are stealing from their parents, they’re stealing money and they’re stealing from the prescription drugs cabinet, medicine cabinet, and in any one of – I mean, that’s just the nature of life to me, is that the surface is so beautiful that the nature, that the glory of the outdoors can just take your breath away and yet inside those homes there’s some terrible secrets. There’s a lot of alcoholism, there’s a lot of mental illness, there’s a lot of infidelity, there’s a tremendous amount of financial insecurity, and the jungle drums are beating and the thing as a species that I think motivates humans is that you think ‘as soon as (fill in the blank) then this.’ Then I’ll be okay. As soon as I lose weight, I’m going to start to have better self-esteem. As soon as I find a partner, I think I’m going to feel less lonely and empty. As soon as we put aside another $20,000 in the bank, I’m going to be able to breathe again. And it’s all a lie. It’s not the truth. If you’re not okay at 200 pounds, you’re not going to be okay at 150. If you’re not okay with, you know, with the amount of money that you still have after the financial crisis, you’re not going to be okay when you regain it. It’s an inside job but for all the greatness of America and the democracy and the separation of church and state, the advertising culture, the extreme pressure to succeed and to keep up and to achieve and achieve and achieve and do a little bit better, is what kills people, and it has since America – America’s great writers started trying to capture that.
CAVANAUGH: Elizabeth and Rosie, mother and daughter, this is the third time you’ve used these characters in a novel.
CAVANAUGH: And Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering what that does in this book to make her alert and perhaps concerned, perhaps sometimes overly concerned about her daughter’s use of drugs and substances.
LAMOTT: Well, for one thing, when you have a kid—and Rosie’s a highly successful child. She’s a tennis champion, she’s got a better than 4.0 average because she’s taking Advanced Placement and Honors classes. She’s a brilliant physics student. She’s fabulous but – So when your kid has a lot of secrets and they’re using and they’re partying and they’re hooking up with boys—which don’t even get me started—it doesn’t breed just anxiety, it breeds paranoia. And more than anything, you want to have a good relationship with your child and so sometimes you overlook it, sometimes you’re just hoping for the best or believing your child’s lies. The very worst thing that happens is that you try to be a really good friend to your child. Parents aren’t here to be friends to their children. But another thing that works against Elizabeth is that she grew up with adorable, charming alcoholics herself, sort of Nick and Nora Charles instead of, you know, trenchcoats at the Greyhound bus depot alcoholics. And what you do even in the finest alcoholic families, children do, to survive, is to agree not to see what’s going on because if a child sees and, God forbid, says what they think’s going on, they’re either punished, they’re sent to their room without dinner, like I was, which is to say you develop massive eating disorders. They are ashamed. And what especially is done to them is that their perception of things is invalidated and they’re taught that, in fact, what they’re seeing is not what’s going on. Mom and Dad are fine. Dad isn’t drunk. Dad is having a nap on the couch in the morning or whatever, so for Elizabeth and mothers like her, the question is can they find inside of themselves the new way of believing that what they’re seeing is true and that the worst possible thing is happening, that their kid is going down a dark road and they’re not positive if they can get their kid back. And so it begins with saying I believe that this is what is true and I’m going to begin acting from that now instead of from my desire to please my child.
CAVANAUGH: Now, of course, everyone who’s followed your writing knows that your son – you have a son, not a daughter. His name is Sam. And this book is a novel and it’s not based on your own life. But yet, the truth of what you’re saying comes from such a deep place of parental concern, I’m wondering how you drew that from your own personal experience. Is there – Where is the place where reality and this novel meet?
LAMOTT: Well, as a teenage user, I loved drugs but we always just thought it was recreational and we were sort of bon vivants. But I smoked dope. I always call it the non-habit forming marijuana that I smoked from the age of 13 to 32 when I got clean and sober. And I loved drugs and I took a lot of acid and I loved methedrine but mostly I’m a born to die drunk so I understand what it is to be 17. The thing is that Sam just gives me the most brilliant interviews, and he’s very honest and funny but he’s 20 now. He’s actually a father, too. He’s a father of a eight-month-old. But I interviewed and became really a good friend of 5 teenage girls who had all gone down this road and they’re exquisite girls. One of them has hepatitis C. She got it at the age of 19 from hooking up at a party where things got away from her. The difference between girls and boys are girls, when they hook up with the boys, service the boys at parties and they are so at risk. They are at risk for various diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, but what they’re mostly at risk for is the complete devastation of soul and the truth of their identity as spiritual beings, as beautiful young women coming into their own, finding their wings. That is trashed by having the handsome or the rich boy with the right car or even just the right shirt or stature want you to service him at a party and maybe one of his friends a little later. And that night, you’re going to be really popular with the guys. And as Rosie explains pretty innocently, the guys really love it, Mom. Oh, really? They do, hon? So I really needed to talk to girls about that. Like it’s almost as if the women’s movement never happened and it’s all – And you want to – You can’t be Holden Caulfield in the field by the cliffs and save kids before they fall off. However, three weeks ago on my way to church, I stopped for a hike by the ocean right by San Francisco and there was a search party of 150 people and dogs and helicopters looking for a girl who had gone to the cliffs with her girlfriend and they’d all partied, they were all seniors, they were all college bound, fantastic girls, and the girl that we were all looking for that morning washed up outside of Muir Beach that afternoon. So, you know, the stakes could not be higher. And while you can’t save them, there is a lot parents can do. There’s light at the end of the tunnel but it means that you have to not let your child beat you up or keep you from getting through that tunnel.
CAVANAUGH: You know, Anne, in your memoirs, you’ve shared so much about your life…
CAVANAUGH: …with your fans…
CAVANAUGH: …with people who read your books. They must think you’re part of their family. They must think they know all about you. And I’m wondering, does that ever – do you find a problem with that ever? Or is it just the price that you pay for writing as honestly as you can?
LAMOTT: Well, for one thing, I write as honestly as I can about stuff that I absolutely know is universal so I don’t tell my readers anything that I’m not – that’s not pretty old hat to me by now. There may be four or five people in the world to whom I tell my absolute innermost, intimate stuff. And the stuff I write about is like, oh, my butt’s really jiggly, oh, I forgot to start working out after I had a child, and, you know, my a huge, passionate, political views and, oh, there are days when you just want to take your infant and put him outside so you can get a nap and, oh, there are days with a child when, oh, every so often, once in a blue moon, you get bored or you start wondering if you kept the receipt and you can return him later or – I mean, but every single mother knows this. It was just that before “Operating Instructions” I don’t know that anyone had said it out loud. Like, I am clinically beyond all hope right now and I actually don’t like children and I want out and stop the world. And when I would tell people, just at lectures or something, that I felt that, no one would say, well, that’s awful, you should – They would say, oh, yeah, me, too. Oh, thank you for saying that, I thought I was a freak or, you know, had no maternal instinct. But the truth is always a paradox, and the stuff I share is really about four concentric circles out from the stuff I share with Sam or my closest friends.
CAVANAUGH: I understand, so…
CAVANAUGH: …that there’s a private circle there. Now you famously wrote a book “Bird by Bird,” and it’s a book about writing, and you talked about writing really bad first drafts.
LAMOTT: Yeah, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: And you talked about, you know, the jealousy that you feel about – with other writers and so forth. But I wonder if you would share with us something completely undiplomatic right now…
LAMOTT: Oh, sure.
CAVANAUGH: …because you are so – you write so beautifully. This is so crafted. Your books are so crafted. What is it that annoys you about writing these days? Not your writing but the writing that you read, the things that get published, the kinds of genres that are popular with people? Does there – picking up books at a bookstore, do you get annoyed or do you get intrigued?
LAMOTT: Oh, I get frustrated because – I don’t really want to name names right now because I’m on book tour and…
LAMOTT: …there are a couple of women who I really – whose work I’ve loved and admired and thought of, really marvelous people. I admire any writer because no writer feels good when they sit down in the morning. No writer wants to sit down and write. And every one of us has exactly equal proportions of terrible self-esteem and raging egomania. So anyone who’s spent three years getting a novel written, you know, and keeping those plates spinning in the air and doing their best, I really admire. But I keep picking up these books and I just feel they’re such commercial versions of earlier books that were rich in detail and humanness, you know, and that I feel that so many books are designed to be bought by the movies. That’s very frustrating to me. And I feel like the publishing industry has just gotten – become so toxic in the last 20 years. Like I sold my first book young, when I was 24, at Viking Penguin, where I am again, and I got $7500 and it was like being at the Oprah giveaway. It was like hitting the lottery. To get a book published was the golden ticket. And over the years, when I taught writing, other students – because it was an honor to get to be one of the storytellers for the culture, a writer, a singer, a poet. And now it’s like the – And one of my students got an advance from a New York City publisher and it was $7500—this was ten years ago—so and she said, I’m not going to take that, like she was insulted. And I said, you know what, I understand that and I can’t help you. Because you have to want to write so badly, you have to be willing to work so hard to get to the truth of your characters. You have to devote one whole draft to taking out the lies and the fake stuff and the stuff you put in just because you think it makes you seem so hilarious and erudite. Like Jessica Mitford said, you have to kill your little darlings. And so I feel frustrated that the industry has changed so much and there’s really – you don’t see much elegance. I’ll tell you a book I love, though.
CAVANAUGH: Please do.
LAMOTT: Oh, my God. Did you read Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, “The Lacuna?”
CAVANAUGH: I have not.
LAMOTT: I think it’s as good as “Poisonwood Bible,” and I don’t say that lightly. And it’s one of those books – and this is what you want to pick up at the bookstore where you read two pages and you go, oh, I’m in. And you know…
CAVANAUGH: Right, yes, yes.
LAMOTT: …that this person has created a completely believable, beautifully detailed, rich, luxurious world in which you can enter and get lost, and you’re going to get found in that lostness. And I bet you were one of those girls, one of the reading girls, who found this at five, that if you picked up a book, you got lost in that magical, marvelous way and in getting lost in the pages of a book, you got found.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. I want to ask you, in the minute we have left, a final question about your novel, “Imperfect Birds.”
CAVANAUGH: And that is, do you find yours – it’s a curious position you’re in now to sort of be giving a warning, considering your own particular past, to parents that I’m sharing your concerns, that we’re in this together, that – but you have to watch out, you have to be careful. Do you find that a curious position for you to be in? Or is it a natural one?
LAMOTT: Well, I don’t think this is really such a warning to parents. I think that with all of my books and all of my writing instruction, the message is the same: Pay attention. You know, start where you are. Start where your feet are. That’s sacred space. And pay attention and see what you’re seeing and let yourself make a lot more mistakes and fail and fall down and get back up. Let others help you get back up. But do not take your eye off the truth.
CAVANAUGH: Anne Lamott, thank you so much. I really appreciate your being here and speaking with us. Anne Lamott’s newest novel is called “Imperfect Birds,” and she will be signing copies of “Imperfect Birds” tonight at 7:30 at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla. If you’d like to comment on our segment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, the Weekend Preview, as These Days continues on KPBS.