Interview with Anne Lamott

Posted by Goodreads on March 5, 2012
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!

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Joy (new)

Joy So great to hear that Anne has a new book out--I can't wait to pick it up and dive in. She is an outstanding author--honest, opinionated, hilarious and just plain wonderful.

message 2: by Candy (new)

Candy To Anne: I own just about all of your books. You're like family. One day I hope we will meet and I'll tell you all about how your sister in NJ (me) is doing! =)

message 3: by Susan (new)

Susan One of my all-time heroes.

message 4: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Johnson Anne, if you saw a peak in sales last year for Bird by Bird, that was me. I loved reading it so much I went out and bought copies for all the friends I have who like to write. That book has been such a wonderful gift to me. Thank you so much! I look forward to reading more of your books and I also plan on checking out the ones you've recommended.

message 5: by Dana (new)

Dana I can't wait to read about Baby Jackson.
Thanks for your progressive Christianity. We so need that voice in our country today.

message 6: by Maria (new)

Maria Anne, YOUR books are among those I recommend when folks ask for "spiritual book" recommendations. And yes, Sarah Miles' "Take This Bread" did indeed change my life.
I'm a YA author who only started publishing in my 40s, and your chapter on Publishing in "Bird by Bird" is one of my favorite pieces of writing-about-writing. I treat myself to rereading it, aloud, on Launch Day for each of my books. THANK YOU.

message 7: by Fiona (new)

Fiona So glad Anne has chosen to write about grandma-hood. I have just allowed myself to accept that it has changed my life and plans (or at least put them on hold) and I am looking forward to reading about someone else's experience. The fact that it gives me the opportunity to read another AL book, is an extra bonus.

message 8: by Patricia (new)

Patricia  Hess I'm going to be a first time Grandma this month...I HAVE to get a hold of this book!!

message 9: by Marcia (new)

Marcia Noren Great interview, thank you for making my day! Anne's rigorous self honesty is mind-boggling and inspiring. She gives us the courage to follow in her footsteps.

message 10: by P. Christopher (new)

P. Christopher Colter I read Bird by Bird back in the mid 1990s. I need to dig it out and reread it. A terrific book!

message 11: by Terry (new)

Terry Palardy Great interview! I too read Anne's Bird by Bird years ago, and think it is time to go back and read it again. I'm retired now, have time to write more, and my grandchildren are in high school! I miss them, a three to four hour drive away...

message 12: by Daena (new)

Daena I loved this interview! Your thoughts about mothers needing to fight to not give up time for creativity and community and about how to respond to other people liking your work ( one more thing I can't control) are going to be sticky notes for me!

message 13: by Susan (new)

Susan SO excited to have a reading list of my favorite author's favorite reads! Can't wait to read Some Assembly Required! Anne Lamott, you are an inspiration and I adore you!

message 14: by Jacci (new)

Jacci Turner Anne, thank you for all you do. I'm a YA author and in my acknowledgements it says, "I'd also like to thank two authors who encouraged me never to give up but to keep writing. Anne Lamott and Jennifer Lauck. The world is a better place because you're in it."

message 15: by Susie (new)

Susie I have loved all of your books and I was thrilled to see a new one about being a grandparent. As a new Grandma, myself, I am excited to read of your experiences and, of course, those of Sam. Thank you for giving us so much of your time, your family and YOURSELF! Love you, dear Anne!!!

message 16: by Martine (new)

Martine Thank you so much for this interview! It made my morning. I look forward to reading the book. I love the quote: "I believe that discipline and self-love are the total secrets to freedom." Just what I needed to hear!! Anne, I am grateful for your honesty, I love the way you share of yourself and your experiences. Maybe soon I will love myself enough to be free!

message 17: by Charron (new)

Charron I read and re-read Anne Lamott - she brings me hope, makes me laugh and makes me think. I can't wait to read the new book! And - I've already been to the library website to reserve a couple of her favorite reads.

message 18: by Pranada (last edited Mar 18, 2012 05:40AM) (new)

Pranada Comtois Anne, We were both born in SF and raised in Marin. I'm just four years younger than you. But how different our lives! How much the essence of what we've learned the same! I would love to sit with you a short while and compare notes of the journey. My faith journey led me from treks into the City at 13 for Erhard's first Est meeting, to the Zen Center's new doors on Page Street, to a mystical encounter with two books on Bhakti at the Tides Bookstore in Sausalito. I joined the infamous Hare Krishna Movement for the living theology--the ancient path of India's mystics--that the foreign transplant offered. Forty years later, I've dropped the ritual and embraced the essence. An essence which offers to empower women--and men willing to embrace the Soul's feminine core.

Thank you for being a beacon of self-empowerment, self-determination and -expression within the honest experience of life in the 20-21st century with your faith journey. We need more women's spiritual narratives. Thank you. Send me grace to join your voice with another woman's voice of brutal honesty peeling back the essence of life, our spiritual quest, and finding our individual home. Best to you Anne, thank you. A million hearts to you.

Maybe some day we'll talk and share little ways of being genuine, and innovative ways we can empower more women.

message 19: by Zelda (new)

Zelda I love Anne Lamott's books. Can I buy her latest one o. My I pad. Kindle????
Zelda from South Africa
Phillip Yansey is a friend of mine. He brought Anne's books over to SA for me. He said I remind him slot of Anne
Bless you

message 20: by Zelda (new)

Zelda I love Anne Lamott's books. Can I buy her latest one o. My I pad. Kindle????
Zelda from South Africa
Phillip Yansey is a friend of mine. He brought Anne's books over to SA for me. He said I remind him of Anne
Bless you

message 21: by Mark (new)

Mark Have met Anne Lamott. And I know Amy, the mother of Anne's grandchild. I think it is highly unlikely Sam had anything to do with writing this book, and find claims suspect that Sam has any involvement as a parent. I think the real story is that Amy is a victim of a callous, indulged young man. Anne is invested in keeping up the fiction as told in this interview, no matter how much Amy, Jackson and Amy's family gets hurt by Anne's actions.

message 22: by Judy (new)

Judy Alexander Mark's was the only negative comment about Anne Lamott, which I found interesting since all other comments were uniformly worshipful. I recently read "Traveling Mercies" and really developed a dislike for her, her narcissism and her poor excuses for self-indulgent behaviors. And now her 20 year old son has a baby - what a surprise! I am really perplexed as to what people see in her writing.When I finished it I left the book on my step (we do this in Brooklyn to recycle books). It took forever before someone took it. Maybe they had read other books by her!

message 23: by Judy (new)

Judy Berna I wasn't going to leave a comment, but seeing the last one, a negative one, left by another 'Judy' led me to pipe up. Let me be the Judy that agrees with the bulk of the other commenters, I adore Anne Lamott's perspective and writing. Having been raised a strict Baptist, she gave me permission to think for myself and create my own version of what I believe.
Beautiful, insightful interview. Thanks for posting it. I can't wait to read the new book.
Signed, the Content Judy

message 24: by Emma (new)

Emma Reading "Bird by Bird" inspired me to begin writing at age 65. Thank you

message 25: by Susan (new)

Susan To Mark and Brooklyn Judy I'd like to say people like you are what is wrong with this world. If you don't have anything nice to say....You obviously haven't read Anne Lamott's work carefully or you would know that an important life rule is Don't be an asshole! NOH8~Peace Out...

message 26: by Zelda (new)

Zelda I have to agree with Susan...!! I was the wife of a Pastor , congregation of 45,000 people, I have always believed ONLY the TRUTH sets you free!!!! Was told I'm to Real for the church. Love Msg bible. Psalm 37 ..Down-to-earth people will move in and take over,relishing a huge bonanza. Why do we love Anne, because she's so REAL and not religious

message 27: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Reese Thank you for this interview. I have read Traveling Mercies and Bird by Bird, and dig them both. Anne Lamott's writing is funny and real; and she shows us how to have compassion for ourselves instead of so much loathing.

message 28: by Adele (new)

Adele I could just read Anne's interviews. They are like mini versions of her books.

message 29: by Kay (new)

Kay Hart Hi Anne - my daughter gave me Bird by Bird as a birthday gift and an encouragement for my writing life. I am loving it. It is so practical, humorous and easy to read. It is my introduction to you and your writing and I shall be reading more of your work. Thanks.

message 30: by Willi (new)

Willi Susan wrote: "To Mark and Brooklyn Judy I'd like to say people like you are what is wrong with this world. If you don't have anything nice to say....You obviously haven't read Anne Lamott's work carefully or you..."

Apparently, it is you who has not read her work carefully. When does she EVER tell someone to hold back their honest opinion, or just "go with the flow' ? You are the one who insulted them with name-calling. They were merely expressing an opinion about a person they know and a book they have read.

message 31: by Melanie (new)

Melanie McPhee I absolutely love Anne LaMott and am reading small victories and feel a sisterhood to her because of her "not perfect," observations that are perfect in spiritual generously!

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