Lamott, Anne 1954-
LAMOTT, Anne 1954-
PERSONAL: Born April 10, 1954, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Kenneth Lamott (a writer) and Dorothy Lamott (an attorney); children: Samuel John Steven. Education: Attended Goucher College, 1971-73. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian. Hobbies and other interests: Tennis.
ADDRESSES: Agent—The Steven Barclay Agency, 12 Western Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952.
CAREER: WomenSports, San Mateo, CA, staff writer, 1974-75; worked in a restaurant in Petaluma, CA; writer, 1980—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; "Word by Word" was voted Best of the Web by Time.
Joe Jones, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1985.
All New People, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1989.
Crooked Little Heart, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Blue Shoe, Riverhead (New York, NY), 2002.
Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Home and Other Stories: Catherine Wagner, University of New Mexico Native American Studies Publications, 1993.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Author of food review column for California magazine, 1988-91; author of book review column for Mademoiselle magazine, 1990-92; author of forewords of When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair, by Geneen Roth, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998, and Two of Us Make a World: The Single Mother's Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the First Year, by Sherill and Prudence Tippins, Holt (New York, NY), 1996; Salon.com, writer of column "Word by Word."
SIDELIGHTS: Anne Lamott has written several works of fiction noted for their edgy humor, but she first came to national prominence with the publication of her account of the ordeal of new motherhood, written with her usual caustic wit. The success of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year landed Lamott on network news programs as well as a regular spot on National Public Radio. A subsequent nonfiction effort, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, was even more popular, appearing on several national bestseller lists. With her newfound success, Lamott published her novel, Crooked Little Heart, a sequel to Rosie. Though she is best known for her nonfiction works, the critical success of Crooked Little Heart marked the return of a much-loved voice to American fiction.
The author's background experiences often appear in her earlier works, incorporating such personal elements as her childhood in a dysfunctional family, her creative and financial struggles as a writer, and her familiarity with the unique cultural landscape of San Francisco. Lamott grew up and resides in Marin County, long a hideout for a variety of refugees from corporate and suburban America. Each of her novels has been set in this picturesque locale, and their characters are often composites of the idiosyncratic types Lamott has come to know over the years. In an interview with the author for Publishers Weekly, Pamela Feinsilver remarked that in her work "Lamott writes with such directness and honesty that her novels . . . seem as real as her journal—human lives unfolding as one reads about them."
Lamott first tried to write short stories when she returned to Marin County after two years of college. Her father, an author, instilled in her a sense of discipline regarding the craft; she periodically sent in work to his well-connected literary agent in New York, but with no success. But when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, Lamott began writing about the trauma of such an illness and its effect upon a family. The short pieces became the chapters of her first novel, Hard Laughter. They attracted attention from a publisher, and Lamott managed to complete most of the book before her father passed away. She wrote the first and last chapters after his death and the novel was published in 1980. In the Publishers Weekly interview, Lamott said that her father had read the rough draft "and it was a great relief to him that I had my foot in the door of the publishing world."
Hard Laughter opens as a northern California family of three grown children has just learned that their father has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Their attempts to deal with it, helped along by a well-honed communal humor and their father's stoicism, are narrated by the daughter Jennifer. These almost-adult siblings find a new definition of the term family in a time of trauma and learn much about their own weaknesses and strengths. The novel incorporates the post-hippie culture of Lamott's home turf in its cast of peripheral characters and minor events. New York Times Book Review contributor and novelist Anne Tyler remarked that "the appeal of this book is . . . that it has much to say about how a good family works—any good family—in times both hard and easy," and noted in conclusion that "it's a moving and strangely joyful book, a kind of celebration, and it's written with an assurance far beyond the reach of most first novelists."
In her second novel, Rosie, Lamott again creates a group of characters learning how to become a family. The protagonist of the work is a quirky youngster evolving from childhood to adolescence and struggling to make sense of her mother's eccentric ways. Rosie's father was killed in a car accident, and her mother, Elizabeth, a virtual paradigm of an over-educated, serenely beautiful, perfectionist woman in her thirties, seems outwardly to be coping with the loss. Financially provided for, Elizabeth spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning her house and whipping up gourmet meals, yet her life really centers around her genteel alcoholism. Rosie wishes for a more bland mother, but deals in her own way with Elizabeth's problems. The circle of adult characters is expanded by Elizabeth's best friend, a codependent artist named Rae, and James, a decidedly plain yet good-hearted writer. As the novel progresses, the young Rosie is assaulted, and her mother's alcoholism inhibits her ability to help her. Lamott wrote this element into the story after meeting many women who had been victimized by child sexual abuse, and felt that discussing the subject in a novel would help lessen some of the stigma attached to its victims. Eventually the characters learn to lean on one another for various purposes: Rosie learns that sometimes less exotic families have even worse problems than her own, Elizabeth comes to terms with her hidden drinking and falls in love with James, and Rae stops falling for the wrong men.
Diane Cole of the New York Times Book Review observed that Lamott "describes the mother-daughter bond with a sharp and graceful style," but faulted the work for its "lackluster plot." Los Angeles Times writer Carolyn See pronounced Lamott "brilliant," the novel "a masterful, stunning job," and asserted that "it is an incomparable thrill to read this book, partly because of the joy, sorrow, suspense, and compassion of the story itself, partly just to watch the art, the craft, the control of the novelist as she struts her stuff."
Lamott remained in northern California, and early in her literary career she worked at a restaurant in Petaluma. The diverse personalities she encountered there, in coworkers and clientele alike, gave her the inspiration for her third novel, Joe Jones. The story is peopled by several lead characters whose lives are intertwined by their involvement with Jessie's Cafe, a quintessentially Bay-area eatery serving up neo-hippie cuisine. The cast includes the owner Jessie, her gay pastry chef grandson, the head cook Louise, and the bartender of the title. Louise is engaged in an on-again, off-again affair with Joe and perennially distressed by his philandering ways. She is consoled by her best friend, the pastry chef, who pines for a lost love and sometimes takes too many drugs. Their ensemble is enlivened by a mysterious newly arrived schoolteacher who is afflicted with a fatal disease. The plot spans the space of a few months and incorporates other unusual characters from northern California.
The publication of Joe Jones coincided with a time of personal crisis in Lamott's life. Like Elizabeth in her previous novel, Lamott was a social drinker who felt her life becoming increasingly dominated by alcohol. Chicago Tribune Book World writer James Kaufmann noted that "Lamott has a gift for the unusual image and simile," but added that in this work, "the fine and funky metaphors accumulate into not much." Discussing Joe Jones in the Publishers Weekly interview, Lamott herself admitted, "It's just all over the place. I wasn't in control of my life, and you can tell the writer is not in control of her material. . . . My life just felt like it was slipping away from me and I didn't know how to stop it."
In 1986 Lamott quit drinking and also took a break from writing. When she began writing again, it was to work on her acclaimed fourth novel, All New People. The work is reflective of this introspective period of Lamott's own life in its story told in flashbacks of a thirtyish woman returning to her home in northern California. The narrator, Nanny, is deeply unhappy but can't seem to pinpoint why, and she enlists the help of a local hypnotist. Through this method she relives mildly troubling scenes of her childhood in an eccentrically countercultural family that included her writer-father, a long-suffering mother, and assorted peripheral relatives and friends. Nanny recalls a string of events that made an impression on her early years when her parents' bucolic Bay-area world was disrupted by the changes in the social fabric of America. Her brother begins smoking marijuana, her uncle comes to grips with his drinking problem, but not before fathering a child in an extramarital affair, and Nanny's own father joins the legions of exiting dads and leaves her mother, but returns after a short time. Nanny's journey back also recounts more recent traumas such as her parents' discovery that she is having an affair with a married man.
All New People is told with Lamott's characteristic humor, and by the end, Nanny discovers an affinity with her mother, who had, when Nanny was a youngster, embarrassed her with her passive, saint-like ways. Los Angeles Times critic See acknowledged that "it distresses me to have to say that her plot here doesn't seem quite to match up with her intentions," but praised it as an unusual tale of interfamilial relationships. Richard Bausch of the New York Times Book Review asserted that "Lamott's wonderful little novel is gripping not because it possesses any of the usual qualities of suspense or dramatic tension, but because its strong, clear, self-deprecating and witty voice takes immediate hold and refuses to let go."
The publication of All New People coincided with another milestone in Lamott's life, the birth of her first child, Sam. Lamott, then in her mid-thirties, had become pregnant and decided to have the baby, much to the dismay of the baby's father. His stubborn absence is one of the more poignant elements of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, a memoir of Lamott embarking down the road to single parenthood on financially unstable footing but armed with much peripheral emotional support. Operating Instructions is a chronicle of Lamott's sometimes-difficult initial months as a single parent. It reflects the challenges the author faced in her new role, and her methods of coping are related in the familiar ironic tone Lamott had previously reserved for her characters. Operating Instructions is more a chronicle of Lamott's adjustment to motherhood than a blow-by-blow account of three a.m. feedings and diaper rash. She writes of the mysteries of a helpless newborn, the sleep deprivation, the financial anxieties, and what she will tell Sam when he asks about his dad. Lamott discusses her feeling of being on shaky ground emotionally, and candidly relates what transpires in therapy sessions. Her friends and family play a large role in Sam's young life, and the book pays tribute to the range of relationships that can fall under the heading of family.
Yet Lamott also writes of the tragedy that beset her during that first year—one of the most important members of this circle, her best friend Pammy, was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly afterward. Lamott writes not only of her feelings of anguish during the period, but also of the legacy of strength and hope that her friend instilled in her. Operating Instructions won Lamott critical and commercial success. Erika Taylor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review felt that the author's musings were sometimes too introspective, at times resulting in "a kind of claustrophobic over-familiarity," but termed the book "a smart, funny and comforting read." Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley also felt the book included too many of Lamott's extraneous opinions, but praised it as "a funny, self-mocking, vivid account of the first year of motherhood by a gifted novelist and journalist." In a Chicago Tribune review of Lamott's work of nonfiction, Carol Anshaw termed her "a wonderfully lithe writer" and asserted that "anyone who has ever had a hard time facing a perfectly ordinary day will identify a little and wish Anne and Sam well in their journey together."
In Bird by Bird, Lamott shares her experiences and offers practical advice to aspiring writers that reviewers called down-to-earth and humorous. Lamott writes about the kind of dedication it takes to become a good writer, about being willing to take oneself seriously as an artist before a word has been written, about giving oneself permission to write really bad first drafts in order to get started, and about the necessity of writing every day. Wade Fox, writing in Whole Earth Review, commented: "The book reads like advice from an old and sympathetic friend." In a New York Times Book Review article, Carol Muske Dukes pinpointed Lamott's method for praise. According to Dukes, Lamott avoids instructing her readers on the craft of writing in favor of "stories, anecdotes, reminiscences, funny and sad jokes, shared experiences—in short good writing about writing, object lessons in the craft and art, by a tough-minded veteran."
Crooked Little Heart, Lamott's sequel to Rosie, begins with her title character just stepping into the difficult territory that is American adolescence. At the age of thirteen, Rosie's most difficult problems stem from her discomfort with the ways her body is changing (and the ways it refuses to change), especially as compared with her best friend and tennis partner, Simone. "Lamott's portrait of Rosie is eloquent, detailed, emotionally honest," remarked Paula Chin in People Weekly. Equally at issue in this novel are Rosie's parents, her stepfather, a writer, and her mother, whose deepening alcoholism seems to stem as much from her continuing grief over the death of her first husband as her inability to cope with Rosie's ever-more-complex needs. With her parents and other adult friends preoccupied by their own lives, Rosie begins to crack under the pressures of being a rising young tennis star and the sole confidante of Simone, who has gotten pregnant. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Lamott "writes with integrity and tenderness of the failure of parental love to protect children, and of the resilience that helps children step over the threshold to maturity." Benjamin Cheever wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Crooked Little Heart lacks dramatic tension, while Malcolm Jones Jr. contended in Newsweek that "armed with self-effacing humor and ruthless honesty . . . Lamott converts potential op-ed boilerplate into enchantment."
In Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Lamott writes of becoming a born-again Christian. Alexandra Hall said in the New York Times Book Review that Lamott "is a narrator who has relished and soaked up the details of her existence, equally of mirth and devastation, spirit and grief, and spilled them onto her pages." Many of the essays originally were installments of Lamott's "Word by Word" column at Salon. com. Eric R. Samuelson reviewed the book for the Association of Mormon Letters Online, noting that Lamott has overcome a number of addictions, is politically very liberal, and does not hesitate to use the "F word" in her writing. However, he wrote, "if you believe that liberal Christianity has lost its way, surrendering is basic beliefs in a maze of liberation theology or political correctness, Anne Lamott will be a bracing corrective. If you want an intelligent, honest, clear-minded look at the role grace plays in the life of a believing Christian, give her a try. And if you want a perspective which captures the very essence of the message of the Book of Mormon, the idea of faith in the midst of despair, hope in the midst of slaughter, grace in the midst of unimaginable sin, I can't recommend anything better."
A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that in her novel Blue Shoe, Lamott writes "with the same quirky brand of Christianity she explored in her wildly popular memoir, Traveling Mercies." Mattie Ryder's marriage to her philandering husband, Nicholas, is over. She moves with her two children, Harry, six, and Ella, two, into the house of her mother, and her mother, at seventy-two, moves into an apartment. From then on, Mattie is contending with her not-always-perfect children, her own temptations (sleeping with her ex), and discoveries of family secrets. Ultimately she finds peace with Daniel, her new love. Claire Dederer wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Lamott's admirers "will find a lot to love" in this book. "This is no collection of homilies—it's a real novel, messy, brave, and weirdly lovable." "Lamott also knows the power of place," said Dederer. "She's been writing about Marin for so long . . . that she has established her own fictional terrain. We know where we're going when we open her books, and that alone is a substantial literary pleasure."
In both her fiction and nonfiction writings, Lamott is known for her humorous but dead-on portrayal of sometimes painful or sad topics such as coping with single motherhood, the relations between parents and their children, the death or endangerment of a friend. In the Publishers Weekly interview, Lamott stated, "Because I have a sense of humor and a sort of compassionate sense of things, I think people are often left with a sense of buoyancy when they finish my stuff instead of feeling flattened by the gravity of each person's human life. I have a lot of hope and I have a lot of faith, and I struggle to communicate that."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, Volume three, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI).
Lamott, Anne, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Lamott, Anne, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Belles Lettres, fall, 1993, Dawna Lee Jonte, review of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, p. 7.
Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1993, Carol Anshaw, review of Operating Instructions, p. section 5, p. 3.
Chicago Tribune Book World, January 5, 1986, James Kaufmann, review of Joe Jones, p. 31.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1994, review of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p. 827; August 15, 2002, review of Blue Shoe, p. 1165.
Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1983, Carolyn See, review of Rosie, October 13, 1989, Carolyn See, review of All New People.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 9, 1993, Erika Taylor, review of Operating Instructions, p. 2.
Nation, November 18, 2002, Charlotte Innes, review of Blue Shoe, p. 56.
Newsweek, April 28, 1997, Malcolm Jones, review of Crooked Little Heart, pp. 78-79.
New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1980, Anne Tyler, review of Hard Laughter, p. 11; January 29, 1984, Diane Cole, review of Rosie, p. 22; October 22, 1989, Richard Bausch, review of All New People, p. 8; March 5, 1995, Carol Muske Dukes, review of Bird by Bird, p. 19; August 17, 1997, Benjamin Cheever, review of Crooked Little Heart, p. 21; March 7, 1999, Alexandra Hall, review of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, p. 19; October 13, 2002, Claire Dederer, review of Blue Shoe, p. 34.
People, April 14, 1997, Paula Chin, review of Crooked Little Heart, p. 29.
Poets and Writers, September, 1996, Molly Fisk, "Anne Lamott: one bird at a time" (interview), p. 52.
Publishers Weekly, August 8, 1980, review of Hard Laughter, p. 78; August 19, 1983, review of Rosie, p. 70; August 4, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of All New People, p. 84; March 22, 1993, review of Operating Instructions, p. 65; May 31, 1993, Pamela Feinsilver, interview with Lamott, pp. 30-31; July 18, 1994, review of Bird by Bird, p. 231; February 17, 1997, review of Crooked Little Heart, p. 208; February 1, 1999, review of Traveling Mercies, p. 35; September 8, 2003, review of Joe Jones, p. 13.
Redbook, December, 1997, Molly MacDermot, "The writer women love" (interview), p. G8.
School Library Journal, July, 1997, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Crooked Little Heart, p. 116.
Theology Today, January, 2000, Patrick Henry, review of Traveling Mercies, p. 608.
Utne Reader, May-June, 1999, Linda Buturian, "Media diet: Anne Lamott" (interview), p. 110.
Washington Post, May 12, 1993, Jonathan Yardley, review of Operating Instructions, p. B2.
Whole Earth Review, spring, 1993, Jon Carroll, review of Operating Instructions, p. 24; spring, 1995, Wade Fox, review of Bird by Bird, p. 29.
Women's Review of Books, June, 1999, Susan Gardner, review of Traveling Mercies, p. 8.
Writer's Digest, June, 1996, Caroll Lachnit, "Anne Lamott: taking it bird by bird" (interview), p. 30.
Association for Mormon Letters Online,http://www.aml-online.org/ (November 13, 2002), Eric R. Samuelsen, review of Traveling Mercies.*