When Novels Take on Social Issues

Some social problems are too complex to attack in a 1,500-word editorial.
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded April 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen