Karen Holt

Anne Lamott has never been shy about letting readers in on her struggles. A partial list of the trials she’s detailed in her writing includes alcoholism, drug abuse, bulimia, the death of loved ones, writer’s block, postpartum exhaustion and her furious opposition to the administration of George W. Bush.

Her engrossing new novel, Imperfect Birds, centers on one of the most harrowing challenges of all—raising a teenager. The third novel in a trilogy that also includes Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, the book begins four years after the latter title ends. Rosie, a precocious adolescent the last time we saw her, is now a volatile 17-year-old whose behavior thrusts her mother, Elizabeth, into a near-constant state of hurt and worry. It’s a poignant family story, at times heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting.

Though Imperfect Birds is fiction and far from autobiographical, like all of Lamott’s work, it reflects the author’s real-life experiences. “There are definitely years that you don’t love when you’re the mother of a teenager, when they’re very mouthy and erratic,” the author says by phone from her home in California. Her son, Sam—an infant when Lamott introduced him to readers in Operating Instructions, her memoir about becoming a parent for the first time as a single 35-year-old—is now 20, with a son of his own. Though thrilled with how Sam has turned out (more on that later), Lamott refuses to take credit.

“You just kind of groan with the exhaustion of having made so many mistakes and just being aware of it and what you should have done or shouldn’t have done,” she says. “But Sam always had a very deep sweetness and I was always banking on that, that this would see us through.”

Which brings us to the paradox at the heart of Lamott’s appeal. Readers look to this author of six nonfiction books, six novels and numerous columns as a wise, funny and compassionate guide to exploring a variety of subjects (her 1994 title, Bird by Bird, is still one of the best books about writing). Devoutly Christian and ferociously liberal, she’s especially fearless when tackling those most touchy of issues, religion and politics, in books such as Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. But, as she constantly reminds us, she doesn’t have all the answers. She has questions. And fears. And faults. And an endless supply of ways to screw up. Yet somehow it all works out OK. Sometimes, it works out much, much better than OK.

It’s not surprising, then, that Lamott fills her latest novel with characters grasping for their own answers. Rosie is smart, beautiful, athletic and seriously into drugs. She’s not picky; pretty much any intoxicant will do: weed, cocaine, prescription pills—in a pinch, cough syrup. Elizabeth wavers between denial and increasingly desperate attempts to rescue her daughter.

Embedded in the poignant family story is a wake-up call for parents: “There are so many evils that pull on our children,” Lamott writes in the novel’s opening lines. “Even in the mellow town of Lansdale, where it is easy to see only beauty and decency, a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses or jail.”

The book’s setting is a stand-in for Fairfax, the Marin County town where the author has lived for years (she grew up in nearby Tiburon). “We do lose kids pretty routinely to accidents and overdoses, way more than you’d think, and so that really weighs on my mind,” she says.

While the substance abuse in Imperfect Birds is scary, nearly as bad are Rosie’s constant lies and ever-changing personality. She’s affectionate one minute, then furious, then scornful, forcing her mother onto a harrowing emotional rollercoaster Lamott thinks many parents will recognize.

“The person you love most in the world, the sweet, consistent person that you love with a lot of love coming back for a lot of years is suddenly a stranger,” Lamott says.

With a narrative that alternates between Rosie’s and Elizabeth’s points of view, Lamott gives readers a fascinating peek into the inner contradictions driving the teenager’s outwardly baffling behavior—the anger, vulnerabilities and desires warring against a sincere wish to do the right thing.

Elizabeth battles her own demons—she has a history of alcoholism and depression—and wrestles with how honest to be with her husband, James, about his stepdaughter’s problems. Though Elizabeth deeply loves her daughter, Rosie can drive her to the edge, as in this passage where the teen lashes out at her mother.

“‘Stop spying on me! You’re the one going crazy—call your shrink.’ And it was the disgusted sneer more than the words that made Elizabeth erupt.

“‘How dare you! I’m not a liar, or cruel! You’re a spoiled little shit.’ She got to her feet, hating herself and her child. . . . [Elizabeth] locked herself in the bathroom and cried silently until she was raw.”

The scene is reminiscent of a column Lamott wrote for Salon in 2006, “My son, the stranger.” In it, she tells of slapping 16-year-old Sam during an argument and then driving around, sobbing heavily. The column ends on a hopeful note, though nothing is resolved. Lamott gives the characters in Imperfect Birds a similarly upbeat ending, as Elizabeth finds the strength to make the excruciating decision that will save her daughter.

As for Lamott, she gets to savor the fact that Sam is safely past his teen years. “He is just the most marvelous, amazing guy in the world,” she says. She also describes him as “brilliant” and “very spiritual.” Living in San Francisco with his girlfriend, Amy, and their baby, Jax, he is studying industrial design at the Academy of Art University. Lamott admits her heart sank when 19-year-old Sam told her he was becoming a father. But as it turns out, the young family is doing just great.

And Grandma?

“Grandparents really are very happy people,” Lamott says. “You get unbelievable love and wonder for three hours. And then they leave and you can lie back on the couch and read The New Yorker. It’s the best of both worlds.”

 

Karen Holt writes frequently about books and authors for O, The Oprah Magazine, Essence and other publications.

RELATED CONTENT
Review of Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies
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Anne Lamott has never been shy about letting readers in on her struggles. A partial list of the trials she’s detailed in her writing includes alcoholism, drug abuse, bulimia, the death of loved ones, writer’s block, postpartum exhaustion and her furious opposition to the administration of George W. Bush. Her engrossing new novel, Imperfect Birds, […]

Even superstars get the jitters. Christopher Paolini tries not to dwell on the huge expectations surrounding Brisingr, the third book in his blockbuster Inheritance Cycle fantasy series.

With the first two books in the series selling 15.5 million copies worldwide, Knopf is preparing for Brisingr's September 20 release with a 2.5 million-copy first printing, its biggest ever for a children's book. Meanwhile, fans are squealing messages like, "I can't wait!" and "OMG. I need it!" on web discussion boards."As an author, I found that I can't really allow myself to think about those things," 24-year-old Paolini says, speaking by phone from his home in Montana. "I actually fell into that trap with the first part of Brisingr… sat there and I started obsessing about every single word."

He worked past it by turning away from the keyboard and writing with an ink-dip pen on 80-pound parchment paper. His mother transcribed the pages. Now it's readers who are obsessing, spinning the meager bits of information Paolini has teased out to them into full-blown speculation about what will happen to Eragon, Saphira and the rest of the inhabitants of Alagaësia.

Among the clues: Eragon will meet a new and terrifying enemy ("He likes to laugh a lot and not in a good way," says Paolini), Eragon will meet a god and one of the characters gets pregnant.

Paolini says Brisingr is more complex than the two books that preceded it, Eragon and Eldest, in part because of its multiple points of view. For the first time, portions of the story are told through Saphira's eyes. How did he find the voice of the smart, loyal and brilliantly sapphire female dragon? "I drew upon my own experience of the pets and animals that I grew up around, especially some of the cats I had," he says. "I thought a dragon would be like a cat in some ways, that same sort of self-satisfied attitude."

Beyond that, weighty moral dilemmas and the sheer number of events make for a rich narrative, he says. The story is so complex, in fact, that halfway through the writing of the book, Paolini decided to turn it into two books. "At a certain point, I realized that if I wrote the rest of Brisingr as I'd planned, it was going to end up being about 2,000 pages," he says.

What had been billed for years as a trilogy became a four-book cycle. As it is, Brisingr is no lightweight at 784 pages. Paolini acknowledges that the book's sophistication reflects his growth as a writer, but he also sees it as the inevitable result of having spent nearly a decade immersed in the fictional world he created when he was just 15.

The home-schooled teenager had earned his high school diploma early and wasn't ready to plunge into college yet when he began writing Eragon. Two years later, he gave it to his parents to read. They decided to self-publish the book and by the age of 18, the boy who'd grown up sheltered, living in the shadow of Montana's Beartooth Mountains with his parents and younger sister, suddenly found himself touring libraries, bookstores and schools to peddle his book. And he did it while wearing a medieval costume.

Eventually, the book ended up in the hands of Michelle Frey, executive editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, who offered Paolini a publishing contract. After that, success came at Paolini so hard and so fast that he found it difficult to fully grasp what he'd become.

"When Eragon came out I was—I'm going to use a cliché—pleased as punch, of course, and delighted, but I didn't really feel like I was a writer," he says. In fact, it's only been recently that he's felt comfortable using that word to describe himself.

Now that he has embraced the label, he's eager to keep growing and proving his abilities to himself. He knows that once he completes the fourth and final book in the cycle he will deeply miss Eragon and the land of Alagaësia, but he's looking forward to exploring other fictional worlds. He's already experimented with writing in different genres, including science fiction and noir.

And even as fans wait breathlessly to get their hands on Brisingr, Paolini is taking nothing for granted. "There's always this feeling like, well, I still remember when I didn't have this and it still might not stick around," he says. "It's good not to be 100 percent comfortable, because if you're 100 percent comfortable, you can lose your edge."

Karen Holt is a freelance writer who lives in Connecticut.

Even superstars get the jitters. Christopher Paolini tries not to dwell on the huge expectations surrounding Brisingr, the third book in his blockbuster Inheritance Cycle fantasy series. With the first two books in the series selling 15.5 million copies worldwide, Knopf is preparing for Brisingr's September 20 release with a 2.5 million-copy first printing, its […]

Over the 14 years since she introduced readers to her fictional alter-ego, bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich has gone from obscure romance novelist to international superstar, a writer whose professional concerns include the logistics of keeping 5,000 snapshot-hungry fans moving through a line and preventing her hand from swelling up during marathon autograph signings.

Meanwhile, Stephanie's life, it is fair to say, has changed less dramatically. "She's a little bit better bounty hunter and I think she has a better idea of who she is," says Evanovich, speaking by phone from her winter home in Naples, Florida (she migrates north to New Hampshire in the late spring). "She knows that she's indecisive. She knows she's in love with two men. She knows that she doesn't have the world's best job and she isn't really great at it."

Out this month, the latest in the series of Plum mysteries, Fearless Fourteen, finds Stephanie still working for her cousin Vinnie, this time in a case involving a $9 million bank robbery committed by a relative of her sometimes-boyfriend Morelli. Working hard to survive in a world filled with gun-toting criminals and eccentric losers, she seems to have little in common with her famous creator. Still, former Jersey girl Evanovich insists, "There is a lot of me in Stephanie." 

Take, for instance, their shared weakness for birthday cake. As Fearless opens, Stephanie confesses, "I used to have a birthday cake in the freezer for emergencies, but I ate it. Truth is, I would dearly love to be a domestic goddess, but the birthday cake keeps getting eaten."

On the day of our interview, Evanovich has just celebrated her 65th birthday, an occasion that was to have included a champagne cruise with her family on their 22-foot Grady-White boat. But by the time they hit the water, Evanovich was too nauseous from an over-consumption of cake to face the bubbly. And she wasn't using her big day as an excuse. "I've been known to go to the supermarket and kind of cruise for abandoned birthday cakes," she says, noting that you can get them for half-off.

Evanovich says she's found that career success has had surprisingly little to do with her personal life. "I'm still the wife and the mother," says Evanovich, whose husband, son, daughter and son-in-law all play various roles in her career. "I'm still the creative person that I always was. On the outside, what that money has done is made it easier for me to be that person, because I can have someone come into my house to clean twice a week. Or because I can live anywhere I want."

She adds that celebrity didn't help her avoid gaining 30 pounds while writing Fearless. She ate her way through the novel and has her heroine do the same. Though, despite the many references to junk food spread throughout the book, Stephanie doesn't gain weight. She doesn't age either, another advantage of fiction over real life.

With the book behind her, Evanovich says, "I am now in full weight-loss mode. I'm on Atkins. The birthday cake just finished me off." She's about to embark on a book tour that will include media appearances and meeting thousands of readers in person. But she says that's not why she wants to shed the pounds. "If I went on the ‘Today' show and I weighed 170, I don't think anybody would really care," she says. "For myself personally I don't feel good at that weight."

Like Stephanie, Evanovich can be refreshingly frank about her vulnerabilities. "Five years ago, I had a facelift. I didn't have that facelift because I wanted to look good on the ‘Today' show," she says. "I had it because every time I looked in the mirror, I had no relationship with that woman. I wake up every morning and I think I'm 32."

Evanovich's work goes beyond the Plum mysteries, of course. There are the Alex Barnaby NASCAR novels, the co-authored romantic suspense novels and the nonfiction book, How I Write. In addition, romances she wrote years ago are in the process of being re-released.

Still, the sexy, struggling bounty hunter remains her signature character. And Evanovich plans to keep her on the job for a long time. "I really have no intention of stopping. And I don't have to. Why? Because I'm only 32."

Over the 14 years since she introduced readers to her fictional alter-ego, bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich has gone from obscure romance novelist to international superstar, a writer whose professional concerns include the logistics of keeping 5,000 snapshot-hungry fans moving through a line and preventing her hand from swelling up during marathon autograph signings. Meanwhile, […]

David Baldacci's new book, The Whole Truth, boasts everything that has landed his last 14 thrillers on national bestseller lists: the compelling villains, the fearless hero, the suspense and all those delicious twists. In other words—it's a really fun read. But Baldacci hopes readers will get more out of it than just a good time. "Maybe with this book, people will sit up and say, 'Gee that could happen. And we need to make sure that it doesn't happen,'" he says.

The Whole Truth is about the Big Lie, and how the Internet has made it possible for disinformation to sound so convincing and to spread so fast that facts become irrelevant. "It's ironic. I think we have less truth today than we had 50 yeas ago," he says, adding, "You can go into a chat room and throw out percentages and figures and they can be a total lie, but people believe them." In Baldacci's new book, Nicholas Creel, the head of the world's largest defense contractor, hires a "perception management" company—the so-called PMers don't just spin facts, they make stuff up—to re-ignite Cold War fears about the Red Menace, driving nations toward the edge of WWIII. It's no coincidence that the plot calls to mind recent concerns about real-life Russian President Vladimir Putin. While PMers trade in lies, "Their targets are picked really well; it's easy to have a negative view of Russia," says Baldacci.

The disinformation campaign that propels The Whole Truth begins with the release of a grainy amateur video showing a Russian man recounting the horrors that he and his countrymen are suffering at the hands of the Secret Russian Federation police. Never mind that the man is an actor. The whole world buys the lie—and nations buy trillions of dollars worth of Creel's weapons. The scenario is not far-fetched, insists Baldacci, who says he got the idea for the book by talking to real people in the perception management business. Since publishing his blockbuster debut novel, Absolute Power, 12 years ago, the author has prided himself on having sources that lend his stories of government corruption and military intrigue authenticity. The 47-year-old Virginia native, who spent nine years as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., before giving up law to write full time, works out of an office in Northern Virginia where his neighbors include the Department of Homeland Security, defense giant Lockheed Martin and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Could the company he keeps be making him paranoid? "I keep my shades drawn and I never say anything over the phone I wouldn't want others to know," Baldacci says. He's chuckling, but it's hard to tell if he's entirely joking. "I don't know if I am or not," he admits.

In The Whole Truth, Shaw, a guy for whom beating up thugs and terrorists is all in a day's work, fights to reveal the truth. But in real life, brains, not brawn, may the best defense against the Big Lie. Disinformation won't be as effective, Baldacci says, if people start reading widely and reaching their own—well-informed—conclusions. "I want people to be curious again. I get tired of listening to people whose opinions are verbatim what they hear on Rush Limbaugh or what they hear on 'The Daily Show,'" he says. Baldacci is doing more than just complaining about the decline in reading. In 1999 he founded the Wish You Well Foundation to support literacy programs. Two years ago the foundation partnered with the hunger-relief organization America's Second Harvest to establish the Feeding Body and Mind (feedingbodyandmind.com) initiative. When Baldacci makes a store appearance, readers bring books to donate, which are then taken to local food banks and distributed to poor families. He's planning to recruit other authors into the program when he speaks in July at Thrillerfest in New York, where the International Thriller Writers Association is giving him its Silver Bullet Award. In the meantime, Baldacci is already well into his next book, a Camel Club thriller that picks up where Oliver Stone's story left off in Stone Cold. The as-yet-untitled book is due out in November.

He's also closely watching the presidential race. Baldacci, who describes himself as an independent, worries the public excitement generated by the candidates won't last once the contest is over. "It's easy to listen to a speech for 10 minutes," he says. "But come January, when we have a new president and the really hard decisions are being made, I'm afraid our citizens are going to check out again."

David Baldacci's new book, The Whole Truth, boasts everything that has landed his last 14 thrillers on national bestseller lists: the compelling villains, the fearless hero, the suspense and all those delicious twists. In other words—it's a really fun read. But Baldacci hopes readers will get more out of it than just a good time. […]

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