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Like-Minded Writers Try to Make Life Sing

Author Anne Lamott and singer Mary Chapin Carpenter will share the stage and their stories.

January 24, 2002|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Just a second, I have to yell at my kid for a minute," says best-selling writer Anne Lamott, on the phone from her home in Northern California. On Saturday, Lamott will appear in concert with singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter at UCLA's Royce Hall. Billed as an evening of spoken word and songs, the unabashed chick fest will be their first joint appearance. Lamott, who would rather cut off her dreadlocks than give interviews, has consented to talk about how the pairing came about.

Several years ago, she says, she got an unexpected e-mail from Carpenter, saying how much she liked Lamott's work. "It was like hearing from Susan Sarandon or something," says Lamott, who knew and admired Carpenter's work. Establishing an electronic friendship, the women found they had much in common, including, Lamott says, "we're both big dog and book people, and we've been through a lot of dog loss and dog celebration." In the past, Lamott has done readings with her church choir, because "it's so joyful to listen to music and not just get read at for an hour." And she thought appearing with Carpenter "would be both risky and intimate," two things Lamott obviously relishes. Their representatives took it from there.

Calling from home near Washington, D.C., Carpenter confirms her co-star's story. In the summer of 1999, Carpenter recalls, she was on tour and grief-stricken over her dog Riley. "One of my beloved dogs was on chemo and was dying," Carpenter says. "That's when I stumbled onto the Salon Web site. I clicked on a column she wrote about the death of a friend's pet, and it spoke to me.... She said the things I was feeling, and she said them with such naturalness and grace."

Carpenter used the Internet search engine Google to track down Lamott and found her agent. He forwarded the message: "My name is Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I just love Annie Lamott."

From their work, it is evident that both Lamott and Carpenter learned long ago that everything, no matter how dreadful, can be crafted into a story or a song. Art is alchemy and, as a result, as Carpenter sings in "Maybe World," "all mistakes are worth making."

In that spirit of spinning grief into gold, Lamott's first novel, 1980's "Hard Laughter," fictionalized the death of her writer father, Kenneth Lamott, at age 56. Her mother died last year of Alzheimer's, and you realize that, through language, that loss is already being transformed somewhere deep inside Lamott. She recalls watching her mother lose her mind: "Every day there's a little bit more of the beach that's washed away. It makes you ache."

Like Lamott, Carpenter writes compelling stories about big topics--thus the title of last year's album, "time*sex*love." Carpenter is working on a new album, and she reveals something else. In June, she plans to marry (for the first time). She declines, however, to name her fiance.

Accurately or not, their admirers perceive Carpenter and Lamott as articulate survivors who know that a dark wit will keep you afloat better than almost anything else. A five-time Grammy winner, Carpenter established herself as a hip writer-performer of what country singers call hurtin' songs with her 1987 debut album, "Hometown Girl." But while her biggest hit, 1992's "He Thinks He'll Keep Her," is about spousal servitude, Carpenter has always done more than exploit the musical potential of misery. And those sad songs are not necessarily about her: She is a songwriter, not an autobiographer.

Songwriting is cathartic, she says, "but I didn't start writing songs as therapy." Rather, she says, "songwriting is my tool for making sense of my world." Both women have passionate followings, including each other.

As for Lamott, writers all but prescribe her thin 1994 classic, "Bird by Bird," to other writers, confident that it will cure most of their ills, from writer's block to worry about the cloacal quality of their first drafts. You have to love a writer who spends an entire chapter trumpeting her jealousy of a writer who makes more money than she does.

As those who have read Lamott's 1993 bestseller, "Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year," know, she is a single mother to Sam, now 11. As a writer with responsibilities other than craft, Lamott tends to see writing and life as a single tangle. Even when her subject is writing, other meaningful things pop up in her work. Among them: friendship, tricking your demons into submission and the way children enlarge your soul and make your keyboard sticky. Lamott is also a born-again Christian, although, as she said during her book tour for 1999's "Traveling Mercies," she prefers to be called a Jesus freak: "Born-again sounds too much like 'twice-baked potatoes.'"

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