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Anne Lamott: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Anne Lamott's Imperfect Birds is the third in a series about the characters Elizabeth and Rosie (and now-husband James). First in Rosie, then in Crooked Little Heart, Anne writes of the growing up children do, and the growing up parents do as well. In Imperfect Birds, the first-person narrative shifts between mother and teen daughter. Elizabeth is simultaneously dealing with her own demons of depression and alcoholism while dealing with her child's growing freedom. Rosie pushes boundaries to the breaking point, with serious drug use and lying forcing Elizabeth to view the unpleasant realities of her daughter's actions and her own desire for polite fiction over impolite truth. Imperfect Birds has become a New York Times bestseller.

Anne's previous books also include the non-fiction Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

The title Imperfect Birds comes from a Rumi quote: "Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect birds." What is it about this quote that fits this story?

I love the truth of it, that really all we have to offer one another as sanctuary is our handmade lives—and that it is a lot—and enough. And how startling the image is because you wouldd never think of a bird as imperfect, yet every teenager sees him or herself as so gravely imperfect.

You're as well-known for your non-fiction books about spirituality and religion as your novels. In Imperfect Birds, Rae runs a vacation bible program with the theme that you are tended to, by tending to others. Is "church through doing" something you aspire to, personally?

St Paul said that faith without works is dead—really meaningless. I'm very much a believer in showing up, in putting our money and time where our mouths are.

How did you write the sometimes-opposite viewpoints of Elizabeth and Rosie, while managing to maintain a realistic voice for either?

This is the third time I've done, and I love and admire both characters so much that I'm glad to switch back and forth.

One of the most interesting (and painful) parts of this book is realizing that in raising a child, you become acutely aware of your failings. Your teen's actions inevitably show your weaknesses, and all the while you're supposed to keep it together enough to parent them. What made you want to write about this?

I try to write the books that I'd love to come across, and I would have loved to come across material like IB during Sam's high school years. The only thing that really helps us in dark and dire times are each other's stories and truth—ie, nests.

For a parent, seeing their child make mistakes is a bit crushing, and I can imagine that a little denial would help keep from overreacting. Do you think there is worth in the power of parental denial? How do you balance when you really need to step in and manage?

It is very tempting not to see what is going on in one's family, especially if you were raised around alcohol and as a child were encouraged not to see what was happening. So I think it is heroic when parents summon the courage to really sort through the clues and face what is going on in their kid's life.

Of course, after a question like that, I have to ask: as you wrote this book, did you expect readers to see this story as a source of advice or insight to their own relationships with their parents or teens? Do you have any hopes for how this may impact readers?

Of course, I hope this book throws the lights on for other parents, and also helps them keep their senses of humor.

In a moment of peace, Elizabeth finds herself at a bookstore, with espresso and a chocolate biscotti, reading The New Yorker. She calls it "as close to heaven as she's going to get on this mortal coil". I'm sure this sounds pretty good to many LibraryThing members. Do you have a personal recipe for heaven on this particular coil, or is biscotti and The New Yorker the way to go?

Biscotti, lying on the couch with NYer, reading novels late at night in bed, hiking with my dogs in the nearby hills, hanging out with a few closest friends—heaven.

Rosie digs herself a deep hole with lies built upon lies. She takes advantage of people believing what she says, because they trust her. It's certainly a boundary we all have to discover, so what do you think makes most people grow out of this?

Getting a little older, and discovering how wrenching it is to people when you deceive them—how devastating that is to your own life to be untrustworthy. Its such a breakthrough to realize that the law of karma is true—the great truth.

Elizabeth describes listening to a piece of music played on a saw as both painful and beautiful. Is this an analogy to a larger theme of the book?

No, it's really about how certain sounds and experiences get past the walls of our comfort zones, because they're SO weird and primitive. And they get to places WAY deep inside where we are usually defended.

What are some great books you've read recently?

I loved Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna. Also, William Dalrymple's City of Djinns.

What's on your bookshelf?

I have a lot of poetry—ee cummings, Mary Oliver, Auden, Sharon Olds, Rumi, Basho. Plus a lot of books on India because I went there in January. Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald, The City of Djinns, Gary Snyder's Passage Through India, Forster of course. Sara Miles's books (Take this Bread, and Jesus Freak).

—interview by Sonya Green

Books by Anne Lamott

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1494 copies)
Blue Shoe (1068 copies)
Rosie (546 copies)
Imperfect Birds (521 copies)
Hard Laughter (415 copies)
All New People (319 copies)
Joe Jones (245 copies)
Word by Word (35 copies)

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About author interviews

Each month we feature a few exclusive interviews with authors in our "State of the Thing" newsletter. Know an author who might want to be interviewed? Find out more.

 

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