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She Taps Inner Strength to Cast Off Gloves--and Armor

Anne Lamott's work confronts real-life anger and pain

September 16, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FAIRFAX — The white VW bug in the garage and the sign at the entrance--Hippies Use Side Door--signal that this is where Anne Lamott lives. It's a light-filled house on a knoll in this Marin County town of 7,500 with its bohemian '60s sensibility.

"You probably saw more tie-dye today than you've seen in years, right?" says Lamott, opening the door. She's wearing jeans and a casual shirt and her signature dreadlocks are slightly askew, one "sticking up like a little antenna."

Kicking off her shoes, she settles into a chair, unruffled in the midst of domestic chaos. While remodeling a bathroom, workmen had flooded the floor, broken through the wrong wall and messed up the electricity, causing the food in the fridge to go bad.

It's something that might have happened to a character in a book by Lamott, who has built her considerable reputation largely writing about real life, notably in "Operating Instructions," her 1993 breakthrough memoir chronicling the challenges of the first year of single motherhood, when she was punching holes in walls, "crazy and furious and desperate and still trying to do the best job I could."

Pantheon paid $35,000 for it, to her then a "king's ransom," and, she says, "nobody expected this crabby, black-humored, political baby book to sell at all," but it became a bestseller--Lamott's first big deal.

She writes funny, even on serious subjects. Wracked with guilt over punishing son Sam, she felt as though she were "buzzing Bambi with a cattle prod."

Due out Oct. 1 is "Blue Shoe" (Riverhead), a novel whose protagonist, Mattie Ryder, a realistic size 12 with jiggly thighs, is a recently divorced mother of two young children coping with the emotional needs of her kids and the demands of her aging mother and hoping to find love with Mr. Right.

Publishers Weekly says Lamott "brilliantly captures the dilemma of a divorced woman from the so-called 'sandwich generation' ... a funny, poignant and occasionally gut-wrenching novel." Kirkus Reviews mentions the author's infusion of her "quirky brand of Christianity" and concludes of the novel, "Lots of charm in the details, not much for momentum."

At 48, with a 13-year-old son, Lamott has never married and has "waited a long time for a really nice man." She recently has found one and is in a relationship with a South African art director for a San Francisco advertising agency.

A woman who has admitted to having just about every addiction--except gambling--drugs and alcohol, she has been sober for 16 years. She's also had a bout with bulimia. Reared as a nonbeliever, she has embraced Christianity with a fervor that spills onto the pages of her books and, she acknowledges, turns off some readers. She shrugs, "They should write their own book. I'm not everybody's cup of tea."

She experienced her religious conversion 17 years ago, as a drunk attracted to the singing coming from St. Andrew, a small, predominantly African American church in Marin City, where she still worships. Lamott rejects the label "born-again Christian"--"I think that's stronger than we need to be, and it's so Pat Robertson. I'm just a hard-core left-wing activist who believes that everyone goes to heaven."

She'd been "dodging Christianity all through my 20s and early 30s. My father hated it so much. He was a child of missionaries." Of her finding Jesus, she has observed, her intellectual left-wing nonbeliever friends "would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond."

Lamott has rejected friends' suggestions that she tone down religion in her writing. She doesn't want to write novels like most of those she reads, in which people "don't believe in anything. It's all hopeless. The only world I'm interested in showing you around is animated by beliefs and humanity. I'm as confused and self-centered and angry as anyone, but that's the world I can be the tour guide for."

Lamott's writing focuses on four themes--anger, grief, faith and friendship. She harbors a lot of anger, much of it directed toward her parents--her writer father Kenneth, who died of a brain tumor when she was 25, and her mother, who died last year, leaving Lamott with unresolved issues.

"My parents had an awful marriage and stayed married for 28 years," she says. She grew up in Marin County, one of three children--and the only girl--in a household where "there was a Harold Pinter play unfolding all the time." Intellectual discussions were encouraged, but shows of emotion weren't permitted.

"Everything was about armor and appearance. My mission has been to get some of the armor off, and be more of a visible mess, and talk about it in a way that's funny so people can say, 'Thank you. Me, too.' " She smiles and says, "I was a grown-up, and probably drunk, before I yelled at somebody."

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