Big Think Interview With Anne Lamott

A conversation with the novelist.
  • Transcript


Anne Lamott: Anne Lamott, I’m a novelist. 

Question: When did you first learn to write seriously? 

Anne Lamott: My father was a writer, so I grew up writing and reading and I was really encouraged by him.  I had some sort of gift and when it came time to try to find a publisher I had a little bit of an “in” because I had his agent I could turn to, to at least read my initial offerings when I was about 20.  But the only problem was that they were just awful, they were just terrible stories and my agent, who ended up being my agent, was very, very sweet about it, but it took about four years until I actually had something worth trying to sell.

Question: What is your working method like?

Anne Lamott: For the last 35 years, since I was full-time, since about the age of 20—even though 15 of those years I was also doing other jobs to support my writing, like cleaning house and teaching tennis, and what not—my father really taught me that you really develop the habit of writing and you sit down at the same time every day, you don’t wait for inspiration.  You sit down, it helps your subconscious understand that it’s time to start writing and to relax down into that well of dream material and memory and imagination.  So, I sit down at the exact same time every day.  And I let myself write really awful first drafts of things.  I take very short assignments; I will capture for myself in a few words what I’m going to be trying to do that morning, or in that hour.  Maybe I’m going to write a description of the lake out in Inverness in West Marin, where I live.  And so I try to keep things really small and manageable.  I have a one-inch picture frame on my desk so I can remember that that’s all I’m going to be able to see in the course of an hour or two, and then I just let myself start and it goes really badly most mornings; as it does for most writers. 

And the difference between a writer who toughs it out and one who doesn’t is that you push through the parts where you know that you’ve just written seven pages when all you’re looking for is one paragraph.

Question: What new ground did you try to break for yourself as a writer in your new novel?

Anne Lamott: “Imperfect Birds” is the third book in a trilogy about these characters, Rosie and Elizabeth Ferguson.  Rosie is the child we first meet in the novel, “Rosie,” who is six or seven years old and whose father has just died.  Elizabeth is her mother who’s very tall and depressed and has a little bit of money from the husband’s death and has no idea who she is in the world except she is very fond of Rosie. 

And in the second book of the trilogy, “Crooked Little Hearts,” Rosie is, I think, it’s been a while, almost 14 and a champion tennis player and starting to get very into the world of boys and that she really isn’t an attractive—she doesn’t feel like an attractive girl.  She is tiny and not developed.  Her best friend is just this cheesecake of vanilla beauty, Simone, and ends up pregnant by the end of the book. 

But in “Imperfect Birds,” I wanted to see where everybody was a few years later.  I wanted to see if Elizabeth had been able to stay sober, I wanted to see what Elizabeth’s marriage to the wonderful novelist, James, was like and I wanted to see Rosie really spreading her wings and going down some really dark paths.  There are bad drug habit—drug problem in the county where I live, in fact in all of California, and in fact in probably in all of the United States among teenagers who discover things like ecstasy and then prescription drugs.  And they’re just stealing and a lot of the kids are being prescribed Adderall for ADD and ADHD and of course they love it because it’s very nice mellow speed, and it helps them with their college exams. And we’ve had a huge problem with OxyContin in our area and a number of deaths of my son’s peers.  And so I wanted to write about it.  I wanted to say, what’s going on here?

Question: How can fiction explore social issues in ways that nonfiction can’t?

Anne Lamott: Well, it’s a very complex issue and it has many causes and roots and ways to approach it from, so you really couldn’t do it any kind of justice in 1,500 words or something.  There are a number of characters who are a different manifestations of... the answer to who gets into drugs, is it the kids you think of as players?  Well, Rosie is a 4.2 student headed to a very good college, who is beautiful, she’s a great tennis player, she’s just a wonderful person, and yet she’s got the genetic predisposition because Elizabeth and her father are both alcoholic.  There’s just no level at which you can achieve that you’re going to feel good enough about yourself to not wonder if you feel a little bit better with Adderall or ecstasy or if you might be more attractive to boys if you are willing to do this or that with them, or this to them, or for them.  And then her other friends are very different than that.  One friend has been off to rehab already and one friend comes from a very nutty, sort of space-case mother, who I don’t think has any problem with substance abuse. 

So, it’s an epidemic in this nation and it’s killing our kids.  Two weeks before I came here, a girl... I went for a hike before church and when I got to the ocean, there were 150 people searching for her body, and she'd been partying with her girlfriends by the ocean and had wandered off and wasn’t found until the next day when she washed up at Muir Woods.  So, it’s a national epidemic.  It’s had a huge impact on my own family.  I mean, my son’s friends, some have died.  One of them is at Napa State probably for a very long time, or forever, and he was the golden child; the golden boy of the high school.  And I wanted to go really in-depth into it.  I wanted to view it from the mother’s point of view, I want to view it from the point of view of the community, and how scary it is to do anything with teenagers that might mean they stop loving you or thinking you’re the cool parent.  And I wanted to write it from inside the child, the young adult, who is making it all seem like it’s the parent’s problem, or fault.

Question: How do you make your characters seem real to you?

Anne Lamott: Well, that’s a good question.  I’ve known these people for a long time.  I started Rosie in 1980, so that’s 30 years ago; I was going, oh, that’s 15 years ago now.  Is that 30 years ago?  1980—oh my God.  And I can honestly say in this case, this little girl with black curls and enormous Siamese blue eyes came up to me and tugged on the sleeve of my shirt and I saw her and I knew her name. 

And it turns out, my father had a character named Casey Ferguson 30 years before that in one of his novels and I don’t even remember reading it, but I loved the name.  I thought, this was great. 

And then I wanted to write about alcoholism because I’m a sober alcoholic, but I wasn’t at the time; I got sober in 1986.  But I was so fascinated by what was happening in my interior landscape that this wonderful, adorable, religious, high-achieving person simply could not stop drinking, if I had one.  I wanted to write about that partly for my own salvation.  And then all of a sudden one day, there was a knock at the door of the Ferguson house and they’re a lonely family; the father has died and Elizabeth, the mother, is shy and depressed.  And there’s this big zaftig woman with a kind of Gibson Girl haircut and she’s new in the neighborhood and she has decided that she and Elizabeth are her new best friends.  And so, then one day, she tricks Elizabeth into going to a backpacking trip, but she really minimizes what it will involve and Elizabeth is just enraged; she’s not a backpack sort of girl.  But they meet these two guys and get drunk with them up at the campfire, and she ends up marrying one. 

So, little by little they reveal themselves to you if you’re open and receptive to what would be the truth of their lives and their arc and their thinking and their growth, or their setbacks.  My main problem is that over and over again, I try to get all my characters to say stuff that I think is so witty or erudite you know, so that everybody will go, whoa, that Anne Lamott is like so brilliant, and then I have to go through and take it all out.  I do a final draft where I go through and I take out all the lies. 

But you get to know them little by little and you don’t always know.  It’s like real life, you don’t know the answer, you don’t know, God or life or your own psyche doesn’t have a magic wand and you ask something and all of a sudden receive the answer, it’s a process.  And, little by little, I can answer the questions of my characters predicaments and what they might reasonably come up with as a response to crises.

Question: How do you balance autobiography and fiction?

Anne Lamott:  Everybody assumes that almost everything I write about that has a teenager in it is a direct telling of something that Sam went through, which is not the case.  I mean, I’m the teenage girl drug addict.  I love drugs.  I smoked the non-habit-forming marijuana every day for about 20 years, and so people—I’m powerless over what other people assume to be either fact or not, and so people assume that stuff I write about in novels happened... and mostly the emotional truth of the characters are autobiographical because I’m the only person I know all that well, and mostly what happens in the novels never happened in real life. 

Then with “Imperfect Birds,” I had five young women who have all been very druggy, and have mostly grown out of it with one exception, and I did very long and extensive interviews with them and I would ask them, why would you do this with the guys, what do you get in return?  Why would you do that drug if it keeps leaving you so crazy and in so much trouble?  I know the answer to that because it’s mood altering and anything is better than feeling small and kind of afraid all the time.  

But I had these five sources that really helped me understand the psyche of the American druggy girl and a high-achieving druggy girl.  And then I have been a parent of a teenager, and I talked to a lot of the other parents and I said, why did we not—how did we not notice this or that or the other?  Why were we so afraid?  So, Sam has certainly given me bad, bad nights and left me wanting to just claw at my own throat with exasperation and a feeling that no worse parent had ever existed, except for maybe Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother. 

But I think that’s what all novelists do.  You draw on your own material and you talk to as many people as you can.

Question: Before you went sober, did you feel that drink or drugs provided spiritual insight? 

Anne Lamott: I can mostly say that the writers that I know that have continued to drink or use, their lives are just kind of disgusting messes right now, not to sound judgmental.  But I mean they’re heartbreaking.  And certainly drugs took me to places; they were like portals.  It’s kind of a cliché, but they were like portals to altered states of consciousness into ways of imagining the world, or seeing a world beyond this world, or seeing a world beyond this world that I might not have gotten to unless I discovered meditation and a very deep, intense spiritual path based on contemplation and meditation. 

But you know, I was young.  I quit drinking and drugs when I was 32, so I cycled through relatively quickly.  And no I don’t think I would have this spiritual sense of exuberance and profundity that I—not that I have, but through which I understand the world if it weren’t for drugs, alcohol, and poetry.  I can honestly and genuinely say those three things.  But at the same time, probably 90% of the time, I was stoned.  I was so wah, wah—I was like an idiot.  I was just stoned.  I would always wake... and drunk.  I was drunk every night from about 18 on.  But I loved Methedrine, for instance, and I loved cocaine.  I took possibly too much LSD, and I loved prescription drugs, and the non-habit-forming marijuana.  But I’d get good and tanked up and I’d start to write, like you do if you’re a writer and so I’d stay up really late scribbling like mad, like the Unabomber.  And then I’d wake up in the morning and it would just be pathological.  It would just be tragic, really.  It would be scrawl.  And yet 10% of it might be stuff that was really great.

And so the proportions weren’t excellent, but the fact is, I think it was just the natural order of things.  The natural course of my life.  My family tends to be pretty alcoholic and drug-addicted.  Both of my brothers are clean are sober also, and a long time, 20-plus years.  And I think drugs are part of the magical possibilities of youth and I wouldn’t be here if I had continued with it.

Question: Is writing itself a kind of altered state?

Anne Lamott: For me, being a writer is not an altered state.  It’s very ponderous, and very—it’s like being a shoemaker.  You know, shoemakers stick to your last and you stay there working over your last, and it’s pretty drudgy in a lot of ways.  But for me, reading poetry and reading the great works of the canon that we were reading in the ‘60s and the ‘70s and ‘80s was mind altering.  I mean, you know what it’s like, people blow your mind with what they are able to catch and present, and I would say that most of the writers I have loved and been influenced by and had been blown away by were drunks and drug addicts and, you know, I love the Beat poets.  I love Allen Ginsberg as much and in the way that I love Virginia Woolf, or Auden. And a lot of the people I loved the most were suicides.   So, I am drawn to people that are not going to shy away from the very dark, scary stuff of the human condition and in a lot of cases people need alcohol or drugs to create poetry and poetic pose that can take you so far out there where you are still able to recognize yourself and then to bring you back home where you’re not the same person you were when you left.

Question: How did you get sober?

Anne Lamott: How did I get sober?  Well, I had—when my dad died when I was 25, my younger brother had been 20, my brother Steve, and he worked in landscape architect, he was a laborer, and one of his best friends had a father who was sober, named Jack.  When our dad died, Steven moved in with this guy Jack and there were all these sober people around his house all the time talking about how much they loved being sober and prayer and meditation and helping others, and they always had these horrible cakes from Safeway that I happen to really prefer to good bakery, because I mostly just like the icing, and they always had this swill, this terrible coffee.  And I was always drinking too much of this swill late at night, whereas if I drink coffee at night, I would sleep again several days later.  But, I got to be friends with this character named Jack and he’d been a total lush like I am, and he said, you know, “We’re not drinking, one day at a time, and everything that we’d ever dreamt has happened for us.”  And I said, “Well, I’m very religious, very spiritual without your little Safeway cakes and swill." But like most drunks that had gotten sober, I got to the point where I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.  You know?  So, I was getting to a point where I was living in a way that involved waking up sick and with a lot of shame and just kind of animal confusion.  And one day I called Jack and said, “What do I do?”  And he said, “Why don’t I come over and we’ll talk.”  So, that’s how I got sober and that’s how I stayed sober as people said, “Why don’t I come over and we’ll talk, and drink our bad coffee like communion together.Our bad coffee and our Safeway cakes.

Question: What is the spiritual path you’ve taken since sobering up?

Anne Lamott: Well, I became a Christian before I got sober. So I was a drunk, bulimic Christian. I wondered into the biracial church across the highway from where I lived when I was still drinking very heavily and using.  And the only reason I went in to this church, which happened to be Presbyterian, was because it was across the street from a flea market and I was there a lot of Sunday mornings when I was so hung over.  And when I’m hung over, I’m drawn to greasy food and lots of it.  And then I would hear this gospel singing or the songs of the Civil Rights Movement.  When I grew up, my parents were old lefties, I grew up on the Weavers and Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and they would be singing a lot of the Civil Rights anthems, and so I’d wander in because I’d run out of good ideas, and no one at my church hassled me.  There were about 40 people and still are only about 40 people.  But they didn’t try to get me to sign on the dotted line, or tell them who shot the Holy Ghost, they just let me sit there and—they just let me sit there.  And the air was nutritious.  Because there were people who had put their money where their mouths were and they’d done the work of social justice and they were true believers.

And I lived in the Bay Area, and still do, in the years of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at this founding City Lights.  My father loved the Beats and worked on a magazine that was very avant-garde in the Bay Area with Evan Connell and a couple of people that were just literary giants.  It was called Contact magazine, so I’d always—and Allen Watts was around on his progressive Bay Area radio stations like KPFA. And so I grew up with the consciousness that Christianity was for people who were really stupid, but that there was something magical in the religions of the East and that Buddhism was okay, and Hindu was okay because—Hinduism was okay because Ginsberg was so wildly passionately, sensuously East in his understanding of things, and so joyously so.  And so I’ve always understood that meditation had to be part of—or was part of the natural path and so I’ve always sort of dabbled in it.  And the main expression of my spirituality has been this little church that I go to, and my sobriety.  The path of recovery and—I’m a terrible Christian and meditating is very hard for me, and I do it.  I do it badly, like I do a lot of things.  I believe in doing things badly.  I believe in listening to the—what calls you from your heart and your spirit and if you do it badly, like learning to dance, you do it badly or you’re going to kick yourself when you grow old and you meant to do it.

Question: Do you like that you're known as “The People’s Author?"

Anne Lamott: I can honestly say there is nothing I would rather be known as than “The People’s Author.”  I’ve never heard that, and I’m thinking you got it from some blog from some guy who is like completely wasted on ecstasy and cheap red wine when he said it.  But if it were true, I would love that. 

And, being a person who believes that all truth is paradox and contradiction, I just get a sucked in as any writer into the jungle drums of publication and wishing that I were on the “Today” Show this morning instead of David Remnick and how it’s not fair and how it’s not fair that he’s not this and that and he’s on “Fresh Air” and so I have a kind of bitterness that goes along with this sense of being “The People’s Author,” and really feeling like a missionary most of the time and just wanting to tell people... the truth of my experience is that we are all a lot more alike than we are different. And that if I share something that seems kind of intimate, or autobiographical, it’s because I assume it’s true for you too.  And I’ve told it so many times and everybody said, “Oh yeah, me too.”  I’m not telling anything that isn’t true for most of us.  And it just has to do with it.  We can seem sort of spiritual and hippy-dippy like I think I come across, and tree hugger and San Francisco and all that.  And at the same time be sort of enraged that the New York glitterati are getting the great spots in the media the week that I’m on tour on the East Coast. 

Question: Do you consciously try to win more fans?

Anne Lamott: I would say the most important thing is to pretend that you’re above all of that.  But certainly, I’m just finding this week—we’re taping this the day of publication—and I’m finding just so much manipulation and kind of desperado stuff going on inside me, and I’m trying to suck people into my web, and I’m trying to use old contacts kind of in the most casual way to try to get them to shoehorn me onto CNN maybe later today after I sign stock at the Riverhead office.  So, I find a lot inside me. 

The thing is, I’ll be 56 at the end of the week and I don’t act on it as much as I used to.  Before, I would have done it all and I would have just been dancing as fast as I could to try to suck in and please everyone and seduce everyone and push everyone harder to get—and now I just feel too tired, and I’m kind of achy from the long flight and so, the impulse is there, and probably this side of the grave.  It just comes with the territory; it comes with the turf of being a well-known writer is that I have a disease called "More."  And if I have a huge audience, I’d like a bigger audience; maybe slightly a slightly more illustrious audience.  Maybe if Susan Sontag were alive she would want to be my best friend.

Question: Does a successful writing life require personal integrity?

Anne Lamott: I don’t think I could make that argument.  In that a lot of the writers I loved best have had disastrous lives, lives that were full of secrecy and lives that were about getting the surface to look right and teaching at the right university and having the right crowd of friends and colleagues and contacts.... and I would say that I think, you know, that’s a very interesting question.  I think I could write about it much better than I could talk about it off the cuff.  It’s the kind of writing I do.  I’ve chosen to try to be honest and to try to share my experience, strength, and hope, and what happens is, I tell all this stuff and a lot of it is just genuinely not that interesting.  And my experience as a writer is that you really do write seven and eight pages to find the paragraph you were after all along.  And honesty is not necessarily interesting.  I don’t want to hear about your dreams or your acid trips, probably... unless you make them really interesting.  And if you have a voice and  you’ve developed the skill over the years in the same way a pianist would develop the skills starting with the scales... if you’ve developed a way of telling stories that draws me in and makes me trust you—like Spalding Gray, say, then he would tell stories that were not necessarily about very, very far out stuff, but I would be riveted, but there’s another life, a very, very tragic life lived by one of the funniest storytellers in the last 20 years. 

So, honesty can be devastating, certainly to people in your family are not hoping that you’re going to be a writer who uses autobiographical material, who suddenly decides he or she is going to tell the truth of what family life was like in the early ‘60s, or during the Eisenhower years.  I have been somebody who has not written a great deal about the truth of my family’s life.  I have not—I so have the goods on people.  I so have the goods on my closest friends, and I don’t use it because my closest friends are more important to me than anything.  I don’t write about the intimate details of my cousins and aunts and uncles, and my mother and my father... because it’s not right to, for me. 

Other writers have and they do feel that, just—Faulkner saying that if you ran over your grandmother in the interest of writing a brilliant novel that threw the lights on for thousands and thousands of people, it’s a fair trade.  I don’t feel that.

Question: What are the best writing exercises you know?

Anne Lamott: When I used to teach writing, I had lots of them, but writing fiction, short stories, and novels is really about creating—having to create some characters that we’re really interested in really quickly because the trick is, you’ve got to get people to turn the page, unfortunately.  Maybe in the books they’re only going to read the first two pages.  So you create a couple of characters that right away are interesting.  You put them in a situation where there’s tension and where the poor reader feels, “Oh God, I wonder what happens now?”  So I used to have people getting—people who couldn’t stand each other getting stuck in elevators, or metaphorically getting stuck in elevators.  Getting stuck in a situation where they really don’t want to be together.  Or, something is found, like in “Blue Shoe,” the novel from a number of years ago; something that is found as meaningless.  It’s a little tiny rubber blue shoe.  A high top, a Converse, I think, that with a perfectly delineated shoe lace, it’s almost microscopic in size in that little round label that doesn’t say Converse because it would be a copyright violation.  Those little things somebody got in a gumball machine, and yet to try to figure out why the father held onto it all those years, opens up... like in “The Wizard of Oz” when the movie goes from black and white to color.  It throws the family’s history into color.  And that’s not always a good thing.  It’s always a good thing, but it’s often very painful and disturbing and distressing.  And it’s often like the house of cards coming down, however, in color. 

And so that’s a situation I would often ask my students to write about, finding something that you instantly know is like—can’t think of the word.  What’s that thing—a talisman.  Or either something that is protective, or that’s something that sets the hero’s journey into motion. 

My experience of exercises is that they’re great when you’re in class or workshops, but for me, I kind of work daily on exercises, but that’s short assignments again.  I’m going to say to myself... like the other day I was actually writing and I had gone to a bilingual Good Friday service in San Francisco at one of the old mission churches from the days when Spain ruled over Mexico and then they established the mission system in California.  It’s a magnificent church and it is truly the people’s church.  And it is very bilingual and it’s very middle-class and poor.  And half of the mass is in Spanish, which I don’t speak, and half is in English.  And it’s so much richer when you can’t understand the words because it takes you to places inside yourself and inside the community expression of grief and hope and the great shalom that you are welcome both by God and by this one community.  And I was trying to write about it and it’s about huge themes.  But it was about a one-hour service.  And so I made that the title, "Bilingual Good Friday," just for now and I started writing about it.  But what it did was it made it possible for me to tell the story of a mother with a 8-month old grandson asleep in her arms when he wasn’t spluttering and making loud farting noises, usually at times of silence.  And with a best friend with a 40-year standing, in a community of almost entirely Hispanic people.  It had a beginning, it had a middle, and it had an end, and half of it was in a language I don’t speak. 

And so the exercise was just that, to capture it.  Now, I could have written 25 pages, but you personally, I know are not going to want to read it.  And I don’t know that you’re a Christian, I don’t know if you want to read about my family, and why I have such a woman as young as myself has such a young son has an 8-month old grandson with her.  But, so I wrote it and I wrote a really terrible first draft of it, which is always a first assignment.  And then I went back and I took out the stuff that wasn’t any good, or was kind of overwrought, or that was preachy, or that was lies.  And so what I was left with was about five pages.  And it was, I can say, it’s not well-written and I wrote it right before I left for tour, but it’s exactly what I had hoped to create. 

Recorded April 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen