Born 10 April 1954, San Francisco, California
Daughter of Dorothy and Kenneth Lamott; children: Samuel
Anne Lamott grew up and has spent most of her life in San Francisco and surrounding Marin County. She has supported herself primarily as a writer for much of her adult life. The most significant events in her life, as they have affected her writing, are her father's illness and death from brain cancer during the late 1970s; the death of her friend Pammy, also from cancer; her decision to quit drinking in 1986; the birth of her son in 1989; and her subsequent decision to embrace Christianity. Much of her fiction is at least semiautobiographical.
All of her writing is marked by an edgy wit. Her personas in her nonfiction and the narrators of her novels are likeably quirky. Lamott is that rare type of writer whose tone can be sarcastic and ironic without becoming bitter or jaded. Much of the time, she is herself the target of her own sarcasm. The many paradoxes of modern life inform her plots and the development of her characters. Over time, her novels have grown increasingly complex and more successfully structured, and her popularity has steadily increased until Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999), a memoir of her journey toward and into Christianity, reached the New York Times bestseller list. Her most prestigious award is a Guggenheim fellowship, which she received in 1985.
Lamott attended Goucher College in Baltimore for two years but didn't begin writing until after she had left the school. Relying on her father's connections to a literary agency in New York, she started submitting short fiction but had difficulty publishing until she began the novel that was to become Hard Laughter (1980). Begun soon after her father was diagnosed with cancer and nearly finished when he died, Hard Laughter is the story of a family just after the adult children have received the news that their father has brain cancer. The narrator is one of the daughters, Jennifer. Despite its subject matter, the novel is amusing and joyful; the characters often rely on humor as a strategy for reconciling themselves to their situation. Though none of the members of this family is perfect, the novel conveys the strengths of a family that functions well together under stress.
Family life in imperfect families is a consistent theme in Lamott's work. Her second novel, Rosie (1983), features a child whose father has been killed in an automobile accident and whose mother, despite her ability to maintain a positive public image, descends into alcoholism and neurosis. Rosie, the protagonist, is sexually abused by the father of a friend, but her mother, Elizabeth, is too consumed by her addiction to help her daughter. The novel ends happily, however, as Elizabeth recognizes her alcoholism and other minor characters also tame their neuroses.
Crooked Little Heart (1997) is a sequel to Rosie. In this novel, Rosie is an adolescent who has achieved success as a competitive tennis player. Because she fears failure more than she assumes success, however, Rosie enjoys the sport less and less, especially after she begins to cheat. She becomes consumed by the weight of this secret, as well as by the secret that her friend and doubles partner, Simone, is pregnant. This novel, with its shifting points of view, successfully conveys the confusion inherent to adolescence as well as the frustration and anguish involved in parenting an adolescent.
Lamott's nonfiction has been even more commercially and critically successful than her fiction. Her first memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1993), delineates Lamott's experience as a single parent. Sam's father did not support Lamott's decision to have the baby, and he is most noticeable by his absence from the book. The book is primarily a chronicle of Lamott's shifting identity as she accepts and understands the appellation "mother." In a similar vein, Bird by Bird (1994) is less an instruction manual than a revelation of Lamott's identity as writer. Her suggestions to aspiring writers are less stylistic or pragmatic than philosophical; it's a how-to text only in the broadest sense, and some sections are among Lamott's most wickedly witty.
Traveling Mercies is a discussion of Lamott's circuitous and wayward route to faith; such a choice was neither natural to nor expected of her. She delineates her childhood experiences with religion, generally among families other than her own. The fact that she has become an active member of a Christian church is as bizarre and puzzling to her as it is to many of her friends, and Lamott approaches religion with the same zealous irony that characterizes her interpretation of other more secular contemporary topics. But her irony remains affectionate, and she treats spirituality as one more quirky yet significant human need. Throughout her writing, Lamott is forthright about her weaknesses and failings, public and private, as well as her desires and beliefs.
Joe Jones (1985). All New People (1989). Home and Other Stories: Catherine Wagner (1993).