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When Novels Take on Social Issues

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


Anne Lamott: “Imperfect\r\nBirds” is the third book in a trilogy about these characters, Rosie and\r\nElizabeth Ferguson.  Rosie is the\r\nchild we first meet in the novel, “Rosie,” who is six or seven years old\r\n and\r\nwhose father has just died. \r\nElizabeth is her mother who’s very tall and depressed and has a \r\nlittle\r\nbit of money from the husband’s death and has no idea who she is in the \r\nworld\r\nexcept she is very fond of Rosie. 


And in the second book of the trilogy, “Crooked \r\nLittle\r\nHearts,” Rosie is, I think, it’s been a while, almost 14 and a champion \r\ntennis\r\nplayer and starting to get very into the world of boys and that she \r\nreally isn’t\r\nan attractive—she doesn’t feel like an attractive girl.  She\r\n is tiny and not developed.  Her best friend is \r\njust this cheesecake\r\nof vanilla beauty, Simone, and ends up pregnant by the end of the book. 


But in “Imperfect Birds,” I wanted to see where \r\neverybody\r\nwas a few years later.  I wanted to\r\nsee if Elizabeth had been able to stay sober, I wanted to see what \r\nElizabeth’s\r\nmarriage to the wonderful novelist, James, was like and I wanted to see \r\nRosie\r\nreally spreading her wings and going down some really dark paths.  There are bad drug habit—drug problem\r\nin the county where I live, in fact in all of California, and in fact in\r\nprobably in all of the United States among teenagers who discover things\r\n like\r\necstasy and then prescription drugs. \r\nAnd they’re just stealing and a lot of the kids are being \r\nprescribed\r\nAdderall for ADD and ADHD and of course they love it because it’s very \r\nnice\r\nmellow speed, and it helps them with their college exams. And we’ve had a\r\n huge\r\nproblem with OxyContin in our area and a number of deaths of my son’s\r\npeers.  And so I wanted to write\r\nabout it.  I wanted to say, what’s\r\ngoing on here?


Question: How can fiction\r\nexplore social issues in ways that nonfiction can’t?


Anne Lamott:\r\nWell, it’s a very complex issue and it has many causes and roots and \r\nways to\r\napproach it from, so you really couldn’t do it any kind of justice in \r\n1,500\r\nwords or something.  There are a\r\nnumber of characters who are a different manifestations of... the answer\r\n to who\r\ngets into drugs, is it the kids you think of as players? \r\n Well, Rosie is a 4.2 student headed to\r\na very good college, who is beautiful, she’s a great tennis player, \r\nshe’s just\r\na wonderful person, and yet she’s got the genetic predisposition because\r\nElizabeth and her father are both alcoholic.  There’s\r\n just no level at which you can achieve that you’re\r\ngoing to feel good enough about yourself to not wonder if you feel a \r\nlittle bit\r\nbetter with Adderall or ecstasy or if you might be more attractive to \r\nboys if\r\nyou are willing to do this or that with them, or this to them, or for\r\nthem.  And then her other friends\r\nare very different than that.  One\r\nfriend has been off to rehab already and one friend comes from a very \r\nnutty,\r\nsort of space-case mother, who I don’t think has any problem with \r\nsubstance\r\nabuse. 


So, it’s an epidemic in this nation and it’s \r\nkilling our\r\nkids.  Two weeks before I came\r\nhere, a girl... I went for a hike before church and when I got to the \r\nocean, there\r\nwere 150 people searching for her body, and she'd been partying with her\r\ngirlfriends by the ocean and had wandered off and wasn’t found until the\r\n next\r\nday when she washed up at Muir Woods. \r\nSo, it’s a national epidemic. \r\nIt’s had a huge impact on my own family.  I\r\n mean, my son’s friends, some have died.  One of \r\nthem is at Napa State probably\r\nfor a very long time, or forever, and he was the golden child; the \r\ngolden boy\r\nof the high school.  And I wanted\r\nto go really in-depth into it.  I\r\nwanted to view it from the mother’s point of view, I want to view it \r\nfrom the\r\npoint of view of the community, and how scary it is to do anything with\r\nteenagers that might mean they stop loving you or thinking you’re the \r\ncool\r\nparent.  And I wanted to write it\r\nfrom inside the child, the young adult, who is making it all seem like \r\nit’s the\r\nparent’s problem, or fault.

Recorded April 6, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

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

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