Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode · 4 months ago

WB-S2E15 Memoir through Essays

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK Ron Block and Patti Callahan Henry talk with Mary Laura Philpott about Bomb Shelter: Love, Time and other Explosives, her collection of essays that are full of heart and humor.

This show is brought to you by our presenting sponsor, Charleston Coffee Roasters. Charleston coffee roasters painstakingly searches the world over for the highest quality coffee beans. They bring them home to Charleston, South Carolina, where slow roasting coaxes out their unique flavor. Along with their promise of great coffee, Charleston Coffee Roasters also pledges to help our planet and local communities. Globally, they support sustainable farming practices. Locally, they partner with the South Carolina seed Turtle Rescue Program Visit Their website, Charleston Coffee Roasterscom, and use the code coffee with friends, all lowercase, all one word, to get twenty percent off on all bagged coffees. That's a good way of putting it. They are always in conflict, these two, these two kind of halves of my personality. I've got this half that's like everything's going to be great, follow of the rules, it's all going to be good, and that I have this other half, it's kind of always been there, this little warrior that's like maybe if I can just think ahead to every possible catastrophe, I can ward them off because of course I'm magical and have that level of control. Those two parts of my brain have always been a little bit in con flict and then sometimes even in concert. Welcome to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast. For New York Times Best Selling Authors, one rock star Librarian and endless stories, join Mary K Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Christy Woodson Harvey and Patty Callahan Henry, along with Ron Block, as novelists. We are for longtime friends with seventy books between us, and I am Ron Block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews at Insider Talk About Publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to the newest episode of the friends and Fiction Writers Block podcast. We get very excited when we get to explore and deelvid to storytelling in all its facets. Today we will talk about memoir through essays with Mary Laura Philip Pott, the author of I miss you when I blank, and her newest bomb shelter, which is excellent. I am Ron Block and I am Patty Callahan Henry and I am so eager to talk to Mary Laura about this collection. Although I have texted her a number of times about this collection. Her work has been, on many occasions a friend to me, to the worry,...

...war and the cheerleader in me. Yes, because Mary Laura Philip Pot is both a warrior and an optimist. Sometimes I think she has peaked into my thoughts. I have a little care, you know. I agree with that. Mary Laura has hailed as the Nora Fron Orma bombat Gene Kerr and Lori call went all rolled into one. Mary Laura was a former bookseller and a cohost of a word on words with Nashville public television. Now she is an internationally best selling author and her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, daily, the Atlantic and so much more. Her last book, I miss you when I blink, was a number one indie pick. Bomb shelter and memoir of essays is out now and asks the question that is so hard to answer. How do any of US keep going when we can't ever be sure what's coming next? Mary Laura, welcome to the Writers Block, friends and fiction podcast. Thank you, Patty. Thank you Ron. It is delightful to be here. So all those people. They compare you too, but I have to tell you, when I read it, I often think of Anne Lamott. Oh, thank you, have a compliment. Thank you. Yeah, right, Ron, am I right? Yes, your spot on. Yeah, just it has this deep undertone of recognition of human nature that makes me go yes, Oh, so that. Thank you. This collection opens with the terrifying account of your son having a seizure, and you wrote that after the episode you saw dangers stalking everyone. You knew, you've written that, you hesitated to write about it, but I have to say that, Damn, I'm glad you did. You get yourself a lifelong warrior, and yet when I read your essays, I can see you alternate, like I mentioned before, between worry and optimism. So talk to us about this collection, why you wrote it and how you tap into those two extremes that are kind of warring within yourself. I think, yeah, they thank you. That's a good way of putting it. They are always in conflict, these two, these two kind of halves of my personality. I've got this half that's like everything's going to be great, follow the rules, it's all going to be good, and then I have this other half that's kind of always been there this little worrior that's like maybe if I can just think ahead to every possible catastrophe, I can ward them off, because of course I'm magical and have that level of control. Those two parts of my brain have always been a little bit in conflict and then sometimes even in concert. But, as you said, in these last few years, as my children have been getting older, getting ready to leave the nest, my parents are getting older, my own middle aged body is getting older, I've been kind of grappling with the idea of letting go and moving into this uncertain time of life. And then this really scary thing happened, which was...

...just out of the blue. It turns out that that my oldest child, my son, has epilepsy and we found out the way everyone finds out they have epilepsy, which you just you know. He had a seizure at home and it was utterly terrifying. And was that the impetus for this whole collection? Was it kind of like tipped you over and I'm going to write another collection? It's a that's a good question, at know at first. So when I finished, I miss you and I blank. I went out on tour for that book. I came home and that kind of hit that like how deep breath. Now, what am I going to write? And I wasn't just insistent that I was not going to write another essay collection. I was not going to do I miss you when I blink. Part to the sequel. I was, you know, I was going to do something different, but I didn't know what that different thing was. And while I was stubbornly trying to focus on what is this different thing, my mind was telling me every single day, no, I know what you're going to do. You have to tell this story, and I don't. I actually don't think of bombshelter so much as an essay collection as much as I think of it as a memoir. It is built out of essays because that is just what I know how to do. That's anything I write in chapters. The chapters are going to be essays, but I think of it as one big story and four months I had really kind of leaned away from writing about this stuff. I did. I specially did not want to write about what happened to my son because I felt like, you know, my general rule is only tell my own story, never tell any story where anybody else's experience overlaps with mine and I just really wanted to avoid it, but it was demanding to be written in my head, like I would lie awake at night and and my little writer brain was going, okay, I've got it, so you're going to put this chapter here and then you're going to pull on this story and then you're going to talk about this memory, and it was just weaving itself together and it was almost like I needed to write it down just to get it to leave me alone. I always say it feels like when something wants to come through US creatively, the more we resist it, MMM, the Naggier it is, and then it's in their dreams and then you can't sleep and then if you shut it down, you can't even write anything else. No, there was no way I was going to write anything else until this book was written. Well, I'm certainly glad that it got on paper. One of the things that should before is to patty was that I'd love to have a map of the wiring of your brain because I just love following it and I can go of like Oh, that's me, Oh that's me, Oh that's me, and everybody that reads it is going to get to just going to relate to something, but but I want start. Go ahead. Might be a pretty weird map run. That's okay, it's okay. I like abstract art. A friend of mine who read it, a really early copy of this book, said she said the thing I love about your writing is sometimes, either at the beginning of the story or in the middle of the story, I will go why the Hell is she telling me this,...

...and it but I love it because I know that within a page or two I'm going to figure out why you're telling me. And I was like, I appreciate that faith. I appreciate that readers have that faith in me. Exactly right, that one is exactly right. I want to talk about the cover. Let's talk about Frank. Yeah, tell us about Frank. Frank is the wild eastern box turtle who lives in my backyard and also lives on the cover of this book. As far as I know, he is older than me. Turtles do not move around. They stay within a certain number of yards of where they were born. So as far as we know, he has lived in this yard for years or decades. He was here with the family before us, he's here now. He's not our pet, so we have no control over him. We don't bring him in the house, but he's a very distinctive shell pattern. So we know him and he first introduced himself to us a few years ago by knocking on our front door, which sounds insane, but that is what he was doing. We we would be in the house and we would hear this like knock, knock, knock, and I would run to the front door because I thought like one of the neighborhood hood kids was playing, you know, ring and run, because it was a loud knock. It's not like a little muted knock. He can I don't know if he uses his shell or his head or what he does, but it's very noisy and he did this for months, just all the time. He started doing it like at three o'clock in the morning, four o'clock in the morning. It was driving my husband crazy. I ended up writing about it for the New York Times, this article about, you know, these bizarre our things that the universe just drops into our lives. I've got this turtle who knocks on my door. What does it mean? You know, I don't think it's my job to figure out what it means. I think it's just one of those wild, unpredictable things. But anyway, Frank. We named him Frank. I don't know what his mom and named him, probably not frank, but he's a part of our world and he has a cameo in the book that that piece from The New York Times that I wrote a few years ago, as well as another piece I wrote for The Times, also about frank, are both in this book as chapters, but they are extended and they include things that were happening in my life that I didn't write about at the time for the paper back. When I wrote those first essays about the turtles, I was keeping any mention of what we were going through as a family and with my son's health out of my writing. But I you know, now that I've decided to kind of write this whole big thing, I started weaving those things back and so he's got a couple of cameos in the book and he's on the cover and I just feel like I'm looking at the cover right now, he visually sort of suggests bomb shelter me kind of if you squint Adam sideways, he kind of looks like a grenade, but also he's got a little shelter all built in yes, which is something humans don't have. We have to come up with our own and sometimes our brains come up with really strange ways of having the illusion of shelter. I was gonna say it's an illusion. Whatever shall we come up with? But tell the story of getting his photograph for the cover. I tell that story. It's so great. I don't know if this...

...well. So okay. So Ron I am very boldly requested of my publisher what I wanted the cover to look like, which, as I understand it, is not the normal way that this goes. But I was like I want this font and this color and then right in the middle, I need this turtle frank and they were like, well, we'll try it. Send us the photos you have of the turtle. So I sent all. You know, I have two hundred photos of him in my phone. I sent all these photos. They were like, we can't use an iphone photo on a book cover and we need like a real high res, good professional photograph. And this was at the time we were having this conversation, kind of early spring and he was still hibernating. So I was like I can't, I can't get a photo of him. He's under the leaf somewhere. I don't even know where he is. And so they went ahead and design the cover with a turtle model who was not frank. She was very beautiful but not frank. And you know, time was taken by and I was like we reach the point where it's like, okay, we're going to have to sign off on this. Frank is not come out, we've got to use the beautiful model turtle instead. And that weekend, when, like on Monday, I was going to have to sign off on the model turtle cover, that weekend frank came out. I was I was gardening out in my backyard and he just came walking out on the back porch and I threw down my garden duels and I ran in the house and I got my camera and I laid down on my stomach and started taking pictures and we actually, if you go to my website, you can see pictures of me taking pictures of frank because while I was using my big camera to take pictures, my daughter was snapping pictures with her phone. Such a right story. There's so many great stories on your website. There are, there are. I am relatively new to your world and I am enjoying every second of getting to know you and your work. And at this story about the pictures just seems very frank. It's frank just does what he does. It's Frank's yard, it's Frank's earth that we are one, that we have like borrowed and are living in a house on. Right. And when I read the essay about your attempt to meditate, Hmm, it made me put down the book and smile with absolute and sheer recognition. Oh our monkey brains. Do you meditate, Patty? Oh, yeah, are you? I should say? I try, but yeah, you can. You do it without a guided meditation in your ear? Like, can you do it on your own? I can, and yet still and always, you know, something comes in and hooks me and then hooks me again and then ask me again and the guided ones are better. But I try really hard and it and it's not long. I can't go long and and I'll out. The buzzer will go off and I'll realize I didn't meditate at all. I was just ruminating about my cover or whatever right is right, or making a grocery list. Yes, exactly. I have to have the guided ones and even with the guided ones. I still like anytime there's a pause, when they're like now we're going to pause. Why you focus on the breath? My brain is like, not the breath, let's focus on something else. But it's but it. You know, even as bad as I am at meditating, it helps. It helps.

It is one of the only things I have found, drugs included, that actually quiets my body and mind and gives me a little piece from the just churning its shut. It calms down my nervous system just enough. HMM. And I can tell when I don't do it, Oh yeah, because you know, week will two will go by, or I'm traveling and I feel more and I'm like Holy Yeah, Yep, I get cocky sometimes and I'm like yeah, I'll do it again when I need it, and I'll go a week or two and Oh man, I know, I know, all right, you can sit down and yet all of that's going on and you're admitting to it, and yet you can still sit down and focus on the small but profound moments in our life that change us, that impact us and, if we pay attention, bring us closer to this grand mystery of life. The unpredictability of this life. How, Mary, Laura, how? How? What's the sacred I don't know. I you know, I don't know how to do very many things, like I can't juggle or do good swim strokes or run or do really much of anything. But but what makes me feel better is to make some sort of order out of the chaos in my brain, and I mean honestly, to connect to what we were just talking about. I think there might be something meditative about the practice of writing for me. If I am fully in the flow of it, it quiets the rest of my brain. And I'm not usually a puzzle person. Like I hate Jigsaw Puzzles. Oh my God, I hate Jigsaw Puzzles. They can moxiety. I hate them. Most puzzles I cannot stand, but the puzzle of taking some raw material in my brain and putting it through all the little gears that it takes to turn that material into a piece of literature. That process, that puzzle, to me is utterly consuming and enthralling and I love it. It's the only puzzle I like and it's the only practice, including meditation or working out or Yoga. It's the only practice I have where when I'm doing it. I'm not. If I'm doing it, you know fully, I'm not thinking about something else. Yeah, because you can't, because you can't. I mean if you are, yeah, it's not worth it. Right, right, to do it. Well, it requires every brain, so you've got and then some. But yeah, it's that's that's what I know how to do and that's what I like to do, and the longer I do it, the more I'm like, yeah, this is this is my thing. I'm never going to learn to like, do Olympic skiing or anything else. It's just this. Not Today, today, today. This is just fascinating to hear to writers talk like this and I just love, Love, love it and always love being a fly on the wall.

But I would love to ask about one piece in particular, to the woman's screaming on the Quad, is one of the most relatable pieces in the book for me. I think that it just amazing that so many people would have an immediate reaction to this story, into what this woman did. But you gave her such grace and you gave her such a wide birth of what could have brought it there that it seemed very logical. And I also want to know if she's she knows you talked about her, yet I don't know. So that that chapter is the one and only piece of fiction in the whole book and it starts in a place of reality and nonfiction. It starts with my son and I being on one of his very first college tours and this admissions officer doing this speech that they all give you. Now, they all, and I could see why, but they all give this speech where they're like, remember, finding a college is about what's right for your child. It is not about you parents, it is not about where you went and your dreams for them, and you have to get out of the way and stop being these terrible, overbearing monsters and let your children fly in beforee or whatever. They all give the same speech, and this one particular admissions guy just said if I'm going to tell you this cautionary tale about a terrible parent who had clearly dragged her daughter to the school she didn't even want to see, and we took them out on a tour and somehow they got separated from US and when the tour guide came back around to the quad, they were having a screaming match and everyone in our tour group was like Oh no, no, no. I was like, what do you mean? No, of course they were. This is such a stressful experience and you don't know what was going on in that mom's life and that daughter's life and what led to that morning. And so that chapter is my imagination kind of spinning off into this fictional world where I picture what led to that screaming match, because I agree with you on it's so relatable. I mean we all have weak moments and tired moments and parenting, in particular parenting teenagers and getting to that part where they're separating from you and you're preparing him to leave the nest, which is just hard on everyone in so many ways. It's just ripe for a screaming match, even if you are doing your best and you don't mean to. So the kind of empathy that I'm showing to that woman is what I hope people will extend to me. And I have no idea who that was. So you know it was me, Shuw well then, yes, she's read the book in her name is to the parent screaming on the quad. Changed the title before it's published. It was not, but it buried. The point is, is it very easily. Could it could have been it could have been any of us. Absolutely. Mary Laura, you have an incredible writing group. They're in Nashville, including your dear friend Margaret Renkle, yes, author, and pen win are of grace lands and a...

Patchett. So talk to us about the importance of that collaboration and that group in your work and in finally saying you were going to put your work out into the world. Yeah, oh my gosh. Well, one of the beautiful things about living in Nashville is there are so many writers here, and not just book writers, songwriters and creative people of all kinds. So it's really invigorating to be around people who create all the time and who see creative work as normal work and and not like what you're weird what you make things. So it just being in this town is wonderful if you are a creative person. So, like you said, and Patchett is here, so many other writers are here. But my my writing group, the specific group that I like sit down with. Unfortunately we haven't gotten together in the last few weeks because our schedule has been crazy. But prior to two thousand and twenty two, you know, we pretty much got together weekly or twice a month. Is Margaret Wrinkle, like you said, the essayist, Susannah felts, who writes both fiction and nonfiction and runs really cool organization here. Co founded an organization called the porch writers collective, so great. Maria Browning, who runs chapter sixteen, which is the online publication of humanities Tennessee, and is also an amazing fiction and nonfiction writer, and Carrington Fox, who is just a very versatile writer who has had stints in her life as a food writer and writing about books and writing personal essays. And this group, we've been getting together now for five years, I guess, and because it's just the five of us. Wait, is that five? Yeah, just the five of us, and we have such regularity about it and we are used to reading our work out loud to one another. There's great trust and to have a group that you can take a still in process piece too and and just have someone outside your own head and outside your own ears, but who is also good at doing this and knows what too, knows how to give good advice. It just helps a ton. It helps a ton and it's fun when any of us have a piece that comes out you know, in a magazine or online or a book or whatever. It's so fun to see it in its final form because we've all seen it kind of from its infancy. We've seen it when it was like, Oh, that was actually two pieces that got moshed into one, or that was a really long piece that is now really short. So it's really fun. I feel very lucky to have have those wonderful people in my life. Just feel like collaboration. This is such a solitary work that we do. Nobody can write that essays for us. Nobody can, you know, put the button the chair. We have to do it. But but it's not solitary and it's not isolating, because every piece of work is better in collaboration, whether it's your editor or your friend, were even somebody who doesn't know. When I'm I can and I know you know this. I bet you'll. You'll say the same thing. When you're working on something. Almost everything you hear it's like Oh, a...

...song, leriss, a poem, the thing that Lady said in the starbucks line. Like it. It filters into your work. So if you let your life, isn't it true? It's so true. Somebody asked me the other day about there's an essay in essay chapter then bomb shelter, where I mentioned a fresh air interview the Terry grossted, and someone was like how did you know when you heard that, that you would include it in your book? And I see my answer was just what you just said. I said because when you're working on something, everything you see in here is an ingredient. They could go into that something. You know, you're just like a little sponge. It's like it's like what you're thinking about. If once you commit, it's once you commit, you commit to a story, it's almost like you become a magnet and it's like shop up that, Larry up that conversation. Yea, yeah, totally. I'm glad you have that group. That's amazing. Yeah, sounds like a wonderful group. So I've read that when you were trying to make a decision about changing your life, you said my sense of self was cloudy. You wrote a lot about this in miss you when I blink. But with bomb shelter you also say we human beings are all things. Were domestic animals and wild things and ridiculous creatures. How do you feel you've grown or changed since I miss you when I blink. That's a great question. I what I think about I miss you when I blink in bomb shelter and how they are sort of related. I miss you and I blank is so anchored in my s. It belongs to this period of time where the momentum that I was on in my s had just kind of whoosh, run its course and had a moment to breathe and look around and go, okay, this is this is where I meant to end up. That's what I want, but this is where I meant to land. And Oh wait, no, it's not. I'm going to need to figure out how to make adjustments. And I feel like so much of our S, or so much of the beginning of adulthood, is momentum driven and list driven. And there you're doing all your first you know, get your first job and you maybe you get married or you have a relationship and maybe you have your first kid. There's just all that you know, by your first house, all these little things, you're kind of taking off. But then there's this kind of real beginning of the next phase of adulthood, which for me came in my s, where it's like, okay, you did all the first things. Now you need to make some really intentional decisions about what comes next. That's what I miss you when I blink is about bomb shelter, and it's funny because the books are only coming out three years apart. You know I miss you. When I blenk was two thousand and Nineen bomb shelters two thousand and twenty two. But bomb shelter is anchored a decade later in life. It's very much my mid s when I'm having to let go of a lot of things, all the things I've been adding to my life over the years and over the decades, the people. You know. I've added children to this world, I've added relationships and jobs and my marriage is deepened enough and I have the whole new relationship with my parents. And the...

...tide is starting to pull out and I'm realizing there's going to be all this letting go and I'm right on the brink of it, and that's what bomb shelter is dealing with and that's how I'm different, because that's where I'm dwelling right now, is in that that letting go time. It's really weird. It's so weird and I love that you take the time to look at it instead of rushing through it, because it's better than looking up when we're eighty two and saying, oh, is that what I meant to do? Right? Right? You Know Jon Diddion's memoir about the year after her husband died, the year of magical thinking. Yeah, does this really almost meditative kind of dwelling in a period of uncertain time? Like she took this whole book and she was she dedicated it just to these twelve months and she was like this, here's what this time felt like, and she doesn't try to wrap it up in any sort of and in the end I decided this and everything was new and great and good. She really lets it just dwell and exist within that bubble of uncertainty and of Oh my God, what is going on? And I very much wanted to do the same thing with bomb shelter, to say here is this two year period of life where everything felt upside down and I had to sort of re Orient Myself and figure out where this guy was again. Well, and I think they're there and I read it in that and I try to think about it myself. You know, my kids have flown and it's an untethering and it's a it's a new shift in life. But to finally realize that there isn't any certainty. There's just none. So I'm not going to one thing's get on certain I'm not going to go look for a new certain right, right. But that's kind of freeing, isn't it? Like you're finally admitting and going, okay, they're actually I don't have control and there is no certainty and this thing that I've been sort of magically fighting for, this ability to protect everyone I love and keep everyone safe forever, it's impossible and which is very sad and a real bummer. But when you finally accept it, you at least the struggle goes out, this struggle to try to do this magical and possible thing. Your shoulders up in your ears and you're like trying to fix it. And Yeah, I know, success. We don't forget that every five minutes. Oh Yeah, yeah, I have to relearn this lesson daily. But yeah, all right, before we let you go, I know you as well as as a writer, you're, as most of us are, a huge reader. So tell us what recent nonfiction memoirs. I guess there's no such thing as a fiction memoir you enjoyed? Well, I guess there are you just invented something new? I go right, HMM, I think there have been. Tell us what memoir you have of really enjoyed that's been inspiring you. You know...

...what I just read and I've been thinking about it a lot because it's gotten the weirdest reception among critics and certain reviewers. Do you ever read the work of Heather have her lesque? Now she now has a yeah, she's an essayist and she also has an advice column. She's a corky personality, strong personality. Her First Book of essays is somewhere on the shelf behind me. Is called what if this were enough, and it's just a collection of like sort of cultural essays. But she's a new book out called Forever Land, on the divine tedium of marriage, and she in that a subtitle. I mean, this is so good. And she she has this really dry sense of humor, I mean so dry you could start a fire with it. And she she is taking this sort of unsentimental, unguarded look at not just the institution of marriage, like what is this and why do we do it, but also really, really, really honestly, what does it feel like if you're going to really do marriage and be tied to another person from the rest of your life? What are all the nuances of that feeling? And a couple of excerpts that it came out just recently, but a couple of excerpts came out before the book and people did not get what she was doing. They first of all didn't get that she was being funny. So, like one of the excerpts that came out in the New York Times where she's she wrote it while her husband had a cold and she's just writing about how gross he is and he is just a heap of laundry and in she just wants to kill him. It's in there right. It's hysterical. All these people, I mean the ladies on the view all these people, were going and this terrible woman is so mean to her husband he should file for divorce anyway. The reception of this book has been Wacky, but I just love her writing. I love that even when she is making a point I don't entirely agree with, and you know we everybody thinks different things about different things. But even when I don't agree with the point she's making. I love to watch her make it. She's just that adept with words. Her wit is so dry. So that's just one that's been on my mind lately because it's been kind of in the news and in front of my face a little bit lately. Well, people listening couldn't tell, but I'm over here writing furiously, I'm on it, I'm and talking about things we love. I love talking with you today. Thank you for joining us, Mary Laura, for having me. Ron and Patty, it was so great talking to you. And before you go, can you tell everybody where to find you online and on the socials? Yes, I have a website, Mary Laura Phil Potcom, and you can go there if you want to subscribe to my newsletter. I have a newsletter that I only send once a month, maybe sometimes twice a month, and it's always a book, a link, Song and a picture. It's really short. I'm on Instagram, I'm on twitter,...

I have a facebook. Not Great about using it, but it is there and yeah, that's where I am. That's awesome. That's awesome. Thank you again for being here and thank you all for listening. On behalf of Christie, Mary K Patti and Kristen, we appreciate you tuning in and hope you'll listen in next week. Be sure and tell a friend. Thank you to our presenting sponsor, Charleston Coffee Roasters, for their generous support. Show our sponsors some love by following them on facebook and instagram and subscribing to their email newsletter. Remember to use the code coffee with friends for twenty percent off bagged coffees at Charleston Coffee roasters. Thank you for tuning in to the friends and fiction writers block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast platform. Tune in every Friday for another episode, and you can also join us every week on facebook for Youtube, where our live friends and fiction show airs at seven PM Eastern Standard Time. We are so glad you're here.

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