Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Anne Lamott talks about Imperfect Birds

Anne Lamott should be a national treasure (complete with a holiday named after her.) Her book on writing (Bird by Bird) is required reading for any budding writer (or anxiety written pro), her book on having a child (Operating Instructions) should be tucked inside every diaper bag, and her novels simply soar. Her newest, Imperfect Birds, returns to one of her earlier novels, Rosie, to tell the story of teenage drug culture and parents being terrified for their the safety of their kids. It's as remarkable as she is--and thank you, thank you, Anne for answering my questions.

Of all your books, this one was the one that absolutely terrified me. It was so raw, so real (plus, I’m the mother of a 13 year old and I worry about the future endlessly) and yet, it also was, to me, the most spiritual of your books, too. Would you say this is because in those dark, scary moments, that’s when there is light (if you can notice it?) Or that being tested give us an opportunity to reveal our best (as well as our worst) selves?

When we are faced with really frightening developments in our lives, like loss or a bad diagnosis or a lost child, we get stripped down to what is true and essential--and this is the most spiritual place we can arrive at. And then to be deeply loved in such a raw and undefended state--without armor, routine, and the ability to Fake it--is the absolute definition of Spiritual.

Knowing Rosie (from your novel Rosie) as a child and then seeing her as a teenager here also made this book more nerve-wracking for me. Because Rosie was the child of an alcoholic mother, I was sure Rosie would never want to have anything to do with substance abuse. Is this usually the case?

There's no such thing as "usually the case". Kids with alcoholic parents have a genetic predisposition to be alcoholics or substance abusers. I really have not observed a "norm". What I've observed in Marin is high-achieving kids with seemingly ideal family circumstances, who have lost their lives, minds, futures, to high risk behavior. We just lost another gorgeous 17 y.o. Marin girl last weekend, about to graduate, who got drunk with her girlfriends about 20 minutes from my home, fell off the cliffs into the ocean, and washed up near Muir Beach.

Elizabeth doesn’t believe in God, though she does seem to have a belief in some things, and there was that powerful scene in the sweat lodge where she feels a glimmer of something larger than herself. Do you think it matters whether you do or you don’t believe, as long as you are open to the moment? And that being open to one moment, like in the sweat lodge, might make you open to more moments?

Yes, I do think there an many many ways to opening our hearts and awakening to the present--and Presence. To seek this presence, of a deep rich reality, the shimmering Now, is to find it. And then some commit to developing this sense of Life, and other people keep hitting the snooze button via workaholism or multi-tasking, which is absolutely life-destroying

For me, the novel was about the reality we create for ourselves—i.e. Rosie’s reality is that what she is doing isn’t so wrong, but James and Elizabeth reality about what she is doing is really something different. Rosie lies, but so does Elizabeth to James. You nail the fierce love parents have for their kids, and the pain when those kids start to pull away into their own lives (as well they should) and their ignorance of the pain it causes their parents. How do you think it’s possible for anyone to really know the truth and reality of someone else’s life? And is there a way we can be better at it?

I don't know that we can really understand what it's like to be another person's, but we can see when people are exhibiting self-destruction and deceit. Parents have to be willing to risk not being the coolest parent on the block, in order to set healthy boundaries, and to impose appropriate consequences for lying, stealing, smoking, etc. A lot of parents so desperately need their kid's affection that they (maybe unconsciously) don't see what their kids are up to--don't see the cries for help, the out-of-controlledness. They don't want to fight with their kids, or have their kids pull away, and so they keep their heads in the sand, or get it to come out OK in their minds--ANYthing that will keep the appearance of closeness: anything to avoid making waves. But as I said, another 17 year old died this weekend.

I’m intensely curious about process, so can you talk a little bit about yours in writing Imperfect Birds? And can you talk about what you are working on now?

Well, novels as you know are a lot harder than stories or essays--it takes close to 3 years, and you never quite know what you're doing. I really try to commit to my characters, and capturing each one's voice and truth, instead of committing to a finished novel. It can be a nightmare for a lot of the process, because you're trying to keep so many plates spinning in the air. So I just to get a day's work done everyday. I let myself write incredibly shitty drafts. I ask one or two cherished writer-friends for feedback. I read novels, to see how other people handle tough stories of being human, and in families, and community; how we survive unsurvivable loss, how we grow, how we age, how we heal, how we keep our senses of humor. And I write everything over, and over, and over; and rely DEEPLY on great editing.

What question didn’t I ask that I really and truly should have?

You could ask how Sam is doing! He is 20 now, a student of industrial design at an art academy in San Francisco, and he and his girlfriend have an 8 month old baby boy, who (along with Sam) is the apple of my eye. His name is Jax; my grandma name is Nana.


Jessica Keener said...

You get right to the heart of the matter.

I loved what you said about parents fearing not being cool. Parents matter, and setting limits to risky behaviors is demanding and comes with its own risks.

We have so much to learn in our society. Too much going on for many of us to manage well.

As always, great interview, Caroline.


Robin Antalek said...

I remember my first time reading Operating Instructions in my bed at dawn with a newborn who wouldn't stop crying. I was so tired I couldn't sleep and I curled around my baby, she and I equally distressed, and picked up Anne Lamott's book from my bedside pile. I had long been a fan - having ferreted out and devoured all of her previous work -- but I never anticipated what a lifeline Operating Instructions would be.
With her subsequent books on faith Anne Lamott has even further been a writer I seek out first when I need the truth in a no holds barred kind of way. You are so right Caroline, when you say Anne Lamott deserves her own day-- she is a treasure and I cannot wait to read this book.

Carol Starr Schneider said...

What a great interview. I can't wait to read this book and always feel encouraged by Anne Lamott's process, writing and rewriting, over and over and over. Thanks, Caroline, another gem!

a gracious plenty said...

i love anne lamott too. i can't wait to read her new novel. her books on faith are my favorite to read and i keep going back to them. of course, bird by bird has meant a lot to me too. thanks, caroline, for a great interview. i will celebrate anne lamott day today!