ANNE LAMOTT has experienced plenty of grit in her 52 years: a drug-infused childhood, oblivious parents, alcohol abuse, single parenthood, bulimia, intense periods of penury and self-loathing-and the list goes on. Instead of whining and wallowing, Lamott writes about her life with such blunt honesty and hilarity that it’s no wonder her books and novels-ten in all-hit best-seller lists. Whether describing her son’s first year (Operating Instructions, 1993), the writing life (Bird by Bird, 1994), or her own liberal Christian faith (1999’s Traveling Mercies, and Plan B, 2005), Lamott somehow manages to make even taboo subjects compelling and funny. Her newest collection, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, continues this unique trajectory. Victoria Lautman chatted with Lamott, who spoke by phone from her home outside San Francisco.
Q: “Alcoholism, motherhood, and Jesus” are the topics your speakers’ bureau lists as areas of expertise. Care to add anything?
A: I also talk about writing, and I’d really love to talk about being a pet owner, but no one seems willing to pay me the big bucks for that. But I love talking about all those things, and also God, and the general realm of addiction, and madness, and restoration, and parenting, and pop culture . . . but mainly I’m asked to speak on faith in different capacities.
Q: Considering you were raised an atheist, you sure have a bunch of religion under your belt: besotted by Catholicism as a child, then Christian Scientism, and then Judaism, complete with a mock bat mitzvah at age 18.
A: Yes, but then I had my whole 20s when I didn’t have anything: 13 years of searching, taking drugs, reading, drinking, and flailing around. I was not at all Jesus-y. The last thing I wanted to be was a Christian, believe me! But then I had my “conversion experience” at 31, and got sober at 32.
Q: You’re a sort of guerrilla Christian, with tales of assisting suicide and championing abortion rights. You even reference Persian poet Rumi and modern spiritual writer Ram Dass. Do Christians view you as a secret weapon or a loose cannon?
A: I think Christianity is big enough to embrace someone even like me, and only about half the folks who come to my events are progressive Christians, a lot of them having been kicked out of mainline churches. I get some hate mail-most Christian bookstores won’t carry my books-and sometimes people write to me saying, “I just finished your book, and I’m so sick of reading about your life and your kid and alcoholism. . . .” And I wonder, why don’t they just go to the library and pick out something else?
Q: Sam, your son, has grown up through your writing from a cute baby to a semi-surly teen capable of provoking you to violence.
A: It’s so great. I didn’t set out to make our life into this literary-video family. It was a way for me to remember the things that just blow me away. Now I have this complete history since when I was pregnant, 18 years ago. Certainly, I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a parent, and done it more publicly than other parents . . .
Q: Like whomping him?
A: When the story ["Samwheel"] about me blowing up and slapping him came out in my Salon column, it got a huge, very dramatic response. I’d shown Sam the article way before I published it, because he has veto power. But he thought it was really valuable to parents and kids. It was saying, “Here’s a pacifistic, peace-loving soul who can lose it when challenged by a teen’s laziness!” And then, at the end, we are just so comforted by each other’s presence.
Noteworthy new releases for March
GRAMMAR LESSONS: TRANSLATING A LIFE IN SPAIN
(University of Iowa Press)
DePaul prof Michele Morano recalls her time spent living and traveling in Spain; 13 candid personal essays connect the rules of grammar to stories illustrating the difficulty and delight of navigating a new language and culture.
Fortune editor Cait Murphy riotously re-creates the 1908 baseball season, which was rife with scandal, arrests, and antics both bizarre and beautiful-not to mention the last time “Cubs dynasty” wasn’t an oxymoron.
TURN THE LIGHTS OUT
Dial the wayback machine to 1977, and you’ll find a treasure-trove of predecessors to The Ponys, the Chicago quartet finding a national stage with a third album. You may hear influences of Television and Joy Division, but the glittery effects and bluesy stomps of dueling guitarists Brian Case and Jered Gummere are excitement enough for any era. The Ponys headline the Logan Square Auditorium March 31st.
Photography: Lautman - Marc Hauser, Lamott - Jonathan Ernst