Northern California-born author Anne Lamott
displays an uncanny ability to conjure up a sense of place. Whether in a novel about raising children in the East Bay, Imperfect Birds
, a memoir about being a single mother, Operating Instructions
, or even a guide to the art of prose, Bird By Bird
, her words echo the spirit and the geography of Marin County. Her latest nonfiction work is a sequel of sorts to the 1993 Operating Instructions
. Some Assembly Required
, cowritten by her son Sam
, follows the parenting adventures of 19-year-old Sam, his girlfriend, Amy, and Lamott's first foray into grandmothering. She chats with Goodreads about how her birthplace informs her work, why faith is such a prickly subject, and whether she dates pastors.
Goodreads: Nearly 20 years ago you published Operating Instructions, which chronicled the first year of your life as the single mother of a newborn son. Now your new work, Some Assembly Required, follows Sam's similar path. What was it like to work together? Anne Lamott
: To tell the truth, I really didn't want to do it. It was my editor's idea, and Sam was so positive in his response. He really loved that Operating Instructions
existed. So I said I'd do it if he did it with me. To get him to actually do it involved the usual pulling teeth that you can expect working with 19- or 20-year-olds, especially your own.
But I just believe in flinging yourself into it and writing incredibly terrible first drafts. I started taking down notes in journal form and taking notes of every single thing I could remember about the birth. Then I would ask Sam to send some e-mails—but of course he had a baby by then. I would nag and nag and nag. Sometimes he would call to talk about what he was going through, and it would be so profound, and it would be so weird to hear a young person's thoughts on parenting and the bond. GR: A lot of Goodreads members want to know more about how your subjects in your nonfiction felt about being in the public eye. Elisabeth Newbold asks, "Now that Sam is an adult—and wow, a father—how does he respond to all those crazy things you wrote about him? Do you have any regrets about your past published works in that regard?" AL
: He loves it all, you know. By the time he was about ten, I was getting permission from him for everything that I wrote. I absolutely held to a line about boundaries. It's really such universal stuff. There was one story about when I slapped him when he was 16. That was probably the most controversial piece that I ever wrote about him; I absolutely cleared it with him. The first draft he rejected because he said it made him look like the crazy guy. Then I felt very affirmed when he was 18 and off at college in Seattle and I was doing a lecture nearby and he brought 20 of his friends. I said, "What do you want me to read?" And he said to read that piece because he thought it was helpful and he loved it. He was the one who wanted to write this book. I gave both himself and Amy [Sam's partner] carte blanche to take out anything they didn't want their children to read someday. GR: Did they take anything out? AL
: Tons, yeah.GR: Goodreads member Meg Burdett says, "You write about the landscape of Marin County like a beloved member of your family, and I sometimes imagine seeing it through your eyes when I visit." How is California a part of you as a writer? AL
: That's a beautiful question. I think California is entirely a Mother of mine. I was born and bred in the beauty of California. Every single relative that I have lives within ten miles of me. Living here has shaped the values that I have, which are about the earth, the rivers, the bay, the mountains. I have these values because of the quality of our family: the aunts, uncles, cousins, and the amount of love we have at the house. There are these people who keep taking you in and feeding you and loving you and making the world a tiny bit safer than it feels. People have community and family, but existentially we are deeply isolated. GR: Motherhood is a strong theme in much of your work. Goodreads member Kathryn would like to know, "What would you tell new moms struggling with the decision to go back to work after having kids?" AL
: Well, mostly you have to. You really just have to bite the bullet because very, very few people are privileged enough. I think that the only way it's going to work is if the mother is able to be accountable to her own needs of a certain amount of space, which is very, very hard to have as a mother. Otherwise you end up with a bitter mother who is pissed off and exhausted.
Balance is a privilege. It's very hard for moms to have any balance because it's superhuman what you are asked to do. The thing mothers let go of: their needs to be creative and communal people, who are fed and enlivened and kept sane by the communion between their creative selves or from their very best friends.
I have a Post-it note that I've had for 22 years on my wall that says, "Put your own oxygen mask on first and just fight tooth and nail." It's not a line item. You cannot be taken out of the budget, your intimacy with your own self and creative truth to exist.
I'm sure the cave women were going, "Can I go sit by the river and put my feet up for a half hour?" and everyone rolled their eyes. You have to be a warrior and say, "Maybe it's everyone else's system, but it's not mine." Maybe all mothers are made to feel guilty asking for their own needs and desires. Moms are coming from a place of absolute starvation. GR: You've written several books about your faith, such as Traveling Mercies, and Deone writes, "[Lamott] proudly identifies herself as Christian and writes about her beliefs openly. Yet she's a pretty outspoken, eccentric artist—a quality we love and admire in her. How does she successfully reconcile the perhaps stereotypical connotations of 'Christian' in this polarized day and age—when Christian in the political sense often means an extreme conservative—with her clearly open-minded, open-hearted point of view and way of living." AL
: That's a complicated question. A good question. You do the best you can. A certain percentage of self-identified Christians think I am doomed and just fucked beyond all imagining because I don't believe the Bible is the literal word of God. I'm a progressive Christian. I'm more of a liberation theology person.
My religious life, my life as a recovering alcoholic, my life as a writer, and life as a public person are the center of my life along with Sam and Jackson [Sam's son].
People are going to think what they think. It's called "another thing I have no control over." A lot of writers, publishers, and book reviewers think, "I'm too this or too that, or too confessional or too casual," you know? You can't get bogged down. You will drive yourself crazy trying to get people to like you or come around to your way of thinking. There are certain topics I don't discuss with people because we all end up crazy. People want to end up crazy because they are so passionate for me to see that they're right. That's their choice. Life's so short. It's over in about an hour and a half. Everyone seems to have an opinion that they would really wish that you did something differently. I'm very successful, but there are 50,000 general interest books published every year. If you don't want to read mine, there are others. GR: Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you have a routine or something you do every day? AL
: Right now I have prepublication jitters, mental illness, and distraction. My grandson is here three days a week, so I have that as an excuse. I have four weekdays now when I'm working. I literally do the same thing every day. I believe that discipline and self-love are the total secrets to freedom. I sit down at the same time every day because I don't want it to be an issue. I'm like a teenager. If you give me a chance to negotiate around sitting down at 9 a.m. and beginning the piece, I'm going to be like a 15-year-old. I may have a reason why that doesn't really make sense and why you're trying to bum my trip.
My dad taught me that to be a writer is a decision and a habit. It's not anything lofty, and it doesn't have that much to do with inspiration. You have to develop the habit of being a certain way with yourself. You do it at the debt of honor. I've written 13 books now. It's not really important that I write a lot more books, but I do it as a debt of honor. I got one of the five golden tickets to be a writer, and I take that seriously. I don't love my own work at all, but I love my own self. I love that I've been given the chance to capture the stories that come through me. GR: What are you reading now?AL
: My favorite novel of last year was Annabel
by the Canadian writer Kathleen Winter
. It's about a child born with both sexual traits in an Inuit village. It will blow your mind. And Half Baked
by Alexa Stevenson
. It's a hysterically funny and harrowing memoir about giving birth to a half-baked baby, a tiny, tiny premie. It's laugh-out-loud funny.
Another book is What I Thought I Knew
by Alice Eve Cohen
. It's everything you love in a memoir. It's a very, very smart woman who has a great sense of humor, and something incredibly challenging happens. The stakes are very high, and she tells the truth. There is so little truth being told in popular culture.
When I was on book tour, I came across In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
by Erik Larson
. Oh my God, it was thrilling. It did what all great books should do: It made me go out and study this subject on my own when I was done, and I hated to be done with it.
No matter how people mess with you or let you down, or how you let yourself down, a good book means that when you get in bed that night, you have a good hour. I feel like you pay all day for that hour. That's what books mean to me. I can open this two-dimensional, flat white page with squiggly little black marks on them, and someone has created this world that you're going to enter into and get lost in Berlin in the '30s. GR: Many users were interested to hear your spiritual book recommendations.AL
: The Denise Levertov
poems, for sure. I always love when I find a copy of C.S. Lewis
's Mere Christianity
. That book influenced me more than any other book I can think of. I also love that book by Rob Bell
, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
. It was very controversial, because he was so left-wing progressive. I also love Ram Dass
. I've been reading Ram Dass
since my twenties. He is from my area. I feel a lot of connection in my heart with him, even though I don't know him. Even that old hippie, hand-printed book, The Only Dance There Is
, is nourishing to my spirit. Mary Oliver
, I consider pure scripture. My favorite spiritual book, though, is Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion
by Sara Miles
. These books will change your life and make you so excited.GR: So what's next? People want to know how Sam is doing. Just a little morsel, please?AL
: I'm not positive what I'm doing next. I can never tell what I'm doing when I'm in the middle of publication because I have no confidence. I have terrible self-esteem, along with boundless narcissism. It's complicated in here!
Sam is wonderful. He is here a lot with Jackson. We're just really close, and we drive each other crazy, just like real people. We are devoted to each other, and I know I'll always be an annoying mother. Sam is just trying to get focused on Jackson; he and Amy split up, but they are raising him together, but in separate households. GR: Last thing: Goodreads member Papasteve wants to know "if she'd like to go out with a Presbyterian pastor from Kansas." AL
: I really can only go out with people who live within five minutes of me. But tell him that makes my day!