People crave laughter, and writer Anne Lamott has satisfied that craving for many readers in a series of poignant and funny works. After years of drug and alcohol abuse and the deaths of her father and her best friend, Lamott admits that she has “had a lot of practice at not feeling good.” And yet she writes about her pain and neuroses in a way that helps her readers reckon with and laugh at their own.
Lamott’s new book, Traveling Mercies (Pantheon), is a collection of storylike essays about faith. Lamott’s belief in God surprises even her, given that her family of liberal intellectuals felt that “believing meant that you were stupid.” Lamott grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She dropped out of college to write and published her first novel, Hard Laughter, at 26. Since then she has written four more novels and two best-selling nonfiction works: Operating Instructions, a journal of her life during her son Sam’s first year, and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She also writes “Word by Word,” an “online diary” for Salon. Lamott spoke with writer Linda Buturian during her recent book tour.
What newspapers do you read?
The San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Observer.
I subscribe to The New Yorker and I buy People pretty regularly.
What trends in the media make you mad?
There aren’t many, really. I’m kind of a gossip hound, but watching the media whip the small fires into giant forest fires so that they can cover the result is infuriating. I’m horrified to see that, with the impeachment over, they’re going to do Y2K now until we just don’t even care what happens on January 1.
Do you listen to the radio much?
When I’m in the car I listen to the Christian station. Of course you expect to be infuriated by the Christian station, but I like to hear Scripture and old hymns. And I listen to oldies.
What music do you listen to?
I don’t have very sophisticated taste in music. I listen to a lot of folk music. I like reggae. I love Sinead O’Connor and her album Universal Mother.
Do you watch TV?
I watch the national news and that’s about it. Oh, Sam and I watch Touched by an Angel every Sunday. When I was a kid, our family used to watch Bonanza. I really liked having a Sunday night TV ritual.
How many books and magazines do you have on your nightstand?
A lot. I have several different books going at once, books that I’ve started that I couldn’t quite get into. Then there’s usually something spiritual or religious. There’s often something I’m reading that somebody wants a blurb for, and usually some not-great novel that’s my nighttime reading. I don’t read great novels anymore. I was reading the new memoir by Norman Podhoretz, Ex-Friends, which was politically about as far away from where I am as possible, but it was pretty fun and easy to read at night. I was reading Cinderella and Her Sisters by Ann and Barry Ulanov, a Jungian book, and now I have The Testament, the new John Grisham novel. Plus that ridiculous New York issue of The New Yorker, which I was just enraged about.
I hate all the double issues. I don’t approve of double issues, and I always write to them and say please don’t run any more, we all hate them, but they never run my letters and they just keep running their double issues.
What fiction writers do you like?
John Grisham is a perfect travel-fiction writer.
I'll have to try him.
Oh, he’s terrible. But the new book is much less about law, much more about the main character’s dark night of the soul. I love A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton. I love Alice Munro, and Alice Adams—but she’s my friend so I don’t know if that counts. I like the novel Midwives by Chris Bohjalian. I also read a lot of poetry.
Where do you look for spiritual and theological insights?
I don’t usually have to consciously go looking for spiritual insight. It just sort of appears. When the need is there, there’s a lot that can fill it. People send me stuff. I read a lot of recovery literature. Every other issue of People magazine has an article about a person who is, accidentally, Christian; it’s not the reason they’re being interviewed, but you can tell that they’re Christian, or they even say so, and there will be something great in that. I try to read the Bible every day.
What would you like to learn next?
I’d like to learn to meditate with more enthusiasm. I can sit down and get quiet for 20 minutes, but it just has not been a part of my Christianity at all. I guess it’s not a natural thing for anybody to sit down long enough to make it a habit, but it’s an area of prayer and contemplation that is most painful for me.