Zibby Owens: I'm really excited to be interviewing Mary Laura Philpott. Mary Laura is the author of I Miss You When I Blink, a memoir written in essays, which was chosen as number one on the Indie Next List by booksellers nationwide. She also wrote and illustrated Penguins with People Problems. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and many others. She is the founding editor of Musing, the online magazine of Parnassus Books, and is the Emmy-winning cohost of the literary interview show A Words on Words on Nashville Public Television. She currently lives in Nashville with her family.
Welcome, Mary Laura. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Mary Laura Philpott: Thank you for having me. This is great fun.
Zibby: We met at the LA Times book festival when I basically accosted you on stage, if you remember. I was like, you have to be on my podcast. [laughs]
Mary Laura: I was just trying to think back to where we met. I know it was an event and you came up after. I travelled so much so quickly that some things started to run together. I couldn't picture the place. That's where it was.
Zibby: That's where it was, which was great.
Mary Laura: That was a fun panel.
Zibby: That was great.
Mary Laura: That was a good group. For people who are listening, we had Heather Havrilesky, who is one of my favorite essayists of all time. She's so good. She wrote What If This Were Enough? and then Laurie Gottlieb who wrote Maybe You Should Talk to Someone which came out the same day my book did, and then Cathy Guisewite, like Cathy the cartoon. The real person Cathy was there. That was so fun.
Zibby: That was so fun. Cathy and Laurie both are on my podcast also. I'm going through the panel.
Mary Laura: [laughs] You did it.
Zibby: Your book, a collection of essays/memoir called I Miss You When I Blink is fantastic. It was so relatable. I feel like I could've written this whole -- you were in my mind. Could you please tell listeners what it’s about? What inspired you to write it?
Mary Laura: I always feel like I should say at the beginning what it is. I Miss You When I Blink is a memoir told in essays. You could pick it up and put it down at any point, and any single essay would make sense on its own. They're arranged in such a way that if you read it from start to finish in order, there's a narrative arch to how these stories stack up. You see it in beginning, how I became a baby perfectionistic as a child and then quickly how I took those tendencies into adulthood and tried to apply them to real life, as if there's any such thing as getting a right answer to anything in adulthood. You see me trying again and again to get things right, to be the best student, the best worker, the best friend, the best artist, the best parent, everything. As I figured out in writing these essays, there's something a little broken in my brain that tells me if I can just do the best job, if I can do the best at everything, I can earn the love of everyone around me. I can finally feel some kind of peace. Some of these stories that I tell in these essays --
Zibby: -- So that's not true? It does not work that way? Are you sure?
Mary Laura: [laughs] I just keep trying. This will be the time I get it. Some of the stories in these essays are funny because obviously, perfectionism does lead to some hilarious mistakes. Some are more sad. It all reaches a climax when I get really depressed and I have to figure out how to move forward and maybe learn to let go of living my life like a checklist. That's what it’s about. That's what it is. The title, which I love -- I can say I love it because I didn't make it up. It’s borrowed from something my son said when he was little. Now he's huge. He's sixteen. He's a foot taller than me. When he was six years old -- oh, I should give a disclaimer too because whenever I say this title came from something my son said when he was six, people are like, “Oh, that's so sweet.” They assume it’s going to be a book about raising young children, like a really sweet motherhood book. That is not what this book is. That does come up in the book. Don't go to this book and go, “She told me this would be about raising young children.” That's not what it’s about.
When he was six and I was whatever age I was when he was six, I was working. I was a freelance writer then. I was sitting in my office in our home working, working, working toward a deadline. He wanted to go to the park. I made this deal with him and said, “We can go to the park when we both finish our writing. Here's a notepad for you. You write some stuff. I'm going to keep writing.” I was writing a brochure about suitcases or something. This is when I was a freelance copywriter, so something really glamorous. He starts chitter-chattering to himself while he's writing on his little notepad. I hear him say, “I miss you in the sink. I miss you in a skating rink. I miss you when I blink.” It caught my ear. I turned. “Wait. What’d you just say?” He said, “I miss you when I blink.” He was so proud because he had gotten my attention.
When we left to go to the park that day, I took his little scrap of paper and I stuck it up on the wall of my office. It stayed there for years. Every day when I would walk down to my little basement where my office was, I would walk past this piece of paper that said, “I miss you when I blink.” I was in a phase of life in those years where time had started to feel like it was speeding up. I was really aware of how I was getting older. My kids were getting bigger. My parents were aging. It felt like it was all moving too quickly. At the same time, I was also starting to feel unsettled. The daily life I was living didn't quite fit me anymore. Being that checklist person, I had made all the steps that led me to where I was. I'd been very happy in that life for a while. I was feeling pulled towards something else.
As I tried to consider who I wanted to be going forward, I was also doing a lot of looking back at who I had been and how I had gotten there. All of that is what I'm writing about in this book. That little phrase, it was so cute, that I stuck on the wall, that stuck in my head for all these years, that at first I just loved because it was cute, came back to me when I was thinking about titles for this book. I thought, that's it. The “I miss you” part gets at the, I miss myself. I miss who I intended to be. The “when I blink” gets at how time goes by so fast. Every time you blink, it’s a year or two years or a decade is going by. I took this adorable thing that he said as a six-year-old, and I applied it to my memoir about being a frustrated, depressed, middle-aged woman. [laughs]
Zibby: Perfect. I'm going to follow my kids around with a little notebook and be like, “My title is going to come out of whatever you say.” I'm going to have a sticky note fest on my wall with everything my six-year-old says for the next year. I’ll be like, “She said I could do it this way.” [laughs]
Mary Laura: I'm telling you, they say amazing things. They have just enough nonsense still left in their language that their language is really unintentionally poetic. I used to write down all the things they said. I've got a little book in my house of sayings that they said when they were teeny little -- when you go back and look at them, I wrote them down because they were cute, but they're also really profound, the stuff that children observe in the world and how they say it.
Zibby: It’s so true. One of the things I was struck with, with a few of your essays was how you felt that you almost didn't deserve to be unhappy in parts of your life. You have an essay called “Everything to be Happy About,” another essay called “Ungrateful Bitch.” You wrote even, “I didn't want to tell anyone I was unhappy because it didn't make sense.” I wrote this essay on Medium a while ago called “Too Lucky to Cry on Easter.” How could I cry? I'm so lucky. What do I have to cry about? No one would understand. How can I feel sad? You really tap into that. At the end you say, “Even the people who have no terrible, obvious burden to carry can find themselves staggering under the weight of a dull, constant dread. It doesn't add up, but it’s true.” Talk to me about all that.
Mary Laura: I mean, you get it.
Zibby: I get it.
Mary Laura: Sitting there at your beautiful Easter with the beautiful brightly colored eggs, everything is good. Everything is great. Oh, my god. You're not feeling great and good. When you have that feeling of “Everything is good around me. Why don't I feel good? Am I broken? What is wrong with me? Am I the most ungrateful person ever?” -- the world we live in right now is a little bit of a garbage fire. Things are a mess all over the place. I often find myself feeling like the world is such a garbage fire that where I should be putting my time and attention, if I'm a good person, is on trying to fix all the things that were wrong. I need to solve climate change. I need to fix the healthcare system. I need to figure out what to do about the horrors that so many human beings are enduring all over the world.
Those are the things that are important. It can't be possibly be important that I, a healthy, financially stable woman in a safe, clean home full of healthy, living family members, it can't possibly be important that I feel mental or emotional distress, that I've worked myself into a state of frustration or exhaustion. I shouldn't think about how I want to live my life in a more meaningful way because some people don't even have clean water. I shouldn't want to find mental and emotional peace because some people don't even have “peace” peace. They don't live in a place that has peace. Like you said, there's a whole chapter in this book called Ungrateful Bitch because at my lowest points, that is what I would call myself. I would look around at my life. I have everything to be happy about. I'm not happy. I am an ungrateful bitch.
What I had to continually remind myself of when I was working through and writing this book, and what I still have to remind myself of -- I remind friends of this. I remind readers of this. I wrote an advice column the other day for Bustle where this was the advice that I was giving the person who wrote in. You can care about lots of things. You can care about the big, important things in the world, and your own life, and your own mental and emotional peace. It’s not either/or. It’s not like either I care about the things I should care about, or I try to get my life right. You can care about the big things that matter, and you can look at your own life and say it’s time for a change here. I need to pay attention to what I'm doing.
Zibby: I also think that beating yourself up about it is unproductive too. It’s such a vicious cycle. I shouldn't feel bad. Now I feel bad and I feel guilty.
Mary Laura: Right. Now I feel bad and I feel --
Zibby: -- And I feel selfish. I feel this.
Mary Laura: Right. When you feel ashamed of your own feelings, then you lock them up because you're like, I can't let anyone know I feel this way. Then you feel lonely because you're trapped inside your own brain. Loneliness compounds every problem.
Zibby: You've said you really enjoy analyzing the difference between being alone and feeling lonely and how sometimes it happens at different places and times.
Mary Laura: You can feel really, really lonely in a room full of people. You can feel really not lonely when you're by yourself. I love being by myself. You and I are both in a phase of life where we don't get as much time by ourselves.
Zibby: By myself? Heaven. [laughs] I think I've been in my apartment by myself once for five minutes. I didn't know what to do with myself.
Mary Laura: A quiet house is a really weird, weird thing.
Zibby: You also wrote this, it’s an essay in your book and also in The New York Times called “A Letter to the Type A Person in Distress,” another thing that I felt you wrote to me. You say to the perfectionistic after you say stop with your to-do lists and your color-coded; now you've done them in three different ways; now you have a pie chart. You say, “You wish you could take a break from carrying everything. It’s all so heavy. You so are so fucking tired. I know, and I know you can't help it. I know how much you need to hear this. I can never hear it enough.” That was not the best summary of that article. What was the response to this essay like from readers? You basically hit the nail on the head for anyone who’s trying to go, go, go, and be the class mom, and get everything right, and have everybody's socks aligned or whatever it is, and not let any balls drop. You are finally telling people it’s okay.
Mary Laura: I love doing that piece live at readings. When I look up at the end, there's always somebody in the crowd sitting there with tears silently streaming down their face, somebody who gets it and is like, “Oh, that's me.” Then there’s always somebody with a great really loud laugh that comes out of nowhere. There's a line in that essay about how if you're a really work-driven person and you hold yourself to really high standards in your work but you have to work alongside people who aren't that way and maybe they cut corners or they don't work with great integrity, it can drive you absolutely mad. I say something like you get to the point where you just want to throw your laptop at someone's face, which is a ridiculous line. You can hear it in the laughs in the crowd, who those people are who have had that exact feeling. They're just like, “Ha! I didn't know other people wanted to throw their laptops at someone’s face.”
I don't really believe that all people fall into two categories, a type A and a type B. Like most human tendencies, it lies on a spectrum. I borrowed those labels for the purposes of highlighting some behaviors. It’s been really funny to hear people who do identify as type A go, “Oh, my gosh. This is me. How did you get in my head?” and for the people who don't identify that way to go, “You know, I always thought type-A people were just annoying. Now I suddenly kind of understand why they do the things they do.” It’s the same reason anybody does the things they do. It’s because somewhere deep in our wiring, we believe we have to do whatever it is we do to prove we’re worthy of love or that we’re even worthy to exist.
Zibby: You said also about this whole type-A nature, Ann Patchett who co-owns Parnassus Books, you said to her that it’s sensing a ticking clock in everything you do. Basically, you're always counting down. She actually gave you this pretty, blue hourglass that you posted along with the article, right? Or was that just an image? I was wondering, do you use the hourglass to remind you of the time passing, or did that whole thing come and go and you never thought about it again?
Mary Laura: It’s so funny. She gave me the hourglass early on when I was writing the book. She was asking how it was going. I was like, it’s going as hard as writing always goes. One of the additional difficulties I was having was finding big blocks of time to write. When I sit down to write, there's this whole chunk of time where I stare out the window for a while and remove myself from the rest of the world to get to the mental place where I have to be to write. That takes some time. Then I actually start writing. I need big blocks of time. I was complaining about that. She gave me this hourglass. She was like, “Here's what you do. You just flip this hourglass over. You tell your kids, don't bother me until this hourglass is empty. That's how you make writing time,” which is hysterical because of course kids don't work that way. Later when she had read the finished book and she read about how obsessed I am with time running out and how that gives me such terrible anxiety, she said, “Oh, my god. I can't believe I gave you an hourglass. I'm so sorry.” [laughs] I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s a lovely hourglass. I don't really use it to flip it over and measure time. It’s beautiful. It’s in my office. I think the time running out thing is just a natural part of growing up. Every year passes faster than the year before it. Mortality starts to feel more and more real. The older I get, the more I have that feeling like I've got to make time count.
Zibby: I feel the same way. I get anxious when I flip it over in Pictionary. You know those little counters? I feel like at this age, in my forties, all the things I want to do, I'm going to run out of time to do all these things. When I am going to fit it in? How many more years do I have? How many more vacations can I take?
Mary Laura: It’s so funny how there are these milestone years that seem to happen. Getting into your forties is one of them. Your thirties just fly by in a -- I shouldn't say “your thirties.” For me at least, my thirties flew by in a flash. I looked up. Whoa. I've got some adulthood left here, but I need to pay attention to how I use it. I've also noticed in responses that I've gotten from readers and messages that I've gotten on social media from readers, there's something about the thirtieth birthday these days that is really throwing people for a loop. A lot of women in particular are looking up at thirty and going, when did this get here? and having a panic about time.
Zibby: That's good. It’s not just in our forties then. Good. I feel better. In addition to this fantastic book, you write for the Parnassus Books, Musing, literary site. You host a show -- do you still do this? -- A Word on Words on Nashville Public Television.
Mary Laura: I do.
Zibby: I watched one that you did with Dani Shapiro who’s one of my favorite authors and now a friend. It was so good. This is my dream to have a show like this too. Tell me about how you balance all these things. Tell me a little more about Musing and also about your TV show and how you're trying to access writers and bring them to everybody.
Mary Laura: I didn't set out to go, I'm going to have multiple jobs within the same industry and be a total workaholic. It just happened. At Parnassus, at the bookstore, Musing is our digital magazine. Running that site has been my job for the past five years at Parnassus. I created the site so that the store would have a way to extend its footprint beyond just the shop floor and a way to amplify the voices of all the people who come in and out of those doors, the authors, the booksellers who are all so smart and such good readers, readers and customers. I wanted to find a way to share the Parnassus experience with people who aren't here in Nashville. We publish a piece every week, sometimes two. Sometimes it’s an author interview or a book excerpt or some kind of little, fun, behind-the-scenes look at the bookstore life. My favorite pieces, the ones where I think it really, really shines are once a month we do staff-recommended reading lists. We round up all the booksellers. It’s my job to nag them to do this. They write little blurbs about their favorite new books that are out. Those, by far, our most popular pieces. That's that job.
Then for Nashville Public Television, I'm a host of a show called A Word on Words. I'm actually a co-host. There's another host too. Her name is JT Ellison. She writes thrillers. She lives here in Nashville. That's a fun job because it is actually produced entirely by Nashville Public Television. I am the “talent,” which means it’s my job to read the books and show up and do the interviews, but I'm not in control of every little bit. I don't have to do the scheduling. I'm not involved in the editing. The neat thing about that show is we record about twenty-five minutes of conversation. What you actually see in the show is only -- I think they're four minutes long or three and a half minutes long. It’s an interstitial, which means it’s a tiny, little show that comes on in between other shows on public television. On public TV, as you probably know, you don't have ads cutting into your shows all the time like you do on network television. If you have, say, a twenty-two-minute show airing on a thirty-minute block, they have this chunk of time to fill before it’s time for the next thirty-minute block. They fill that with original programming. We’re the show between the shows, which is kind of fun.
I don't know how I balance it. When people go, “How do you do it all?” it looks a little different every day. The nice thing about the show is that we do fifteen episodes a season. I only shoot half. That's seven of those. Those are spread out. Musing is obviously rolling every week, all the time. That is a lot. I don't know yet if I’ll stay involved at that level with Musing or if we may need to move some things around within the store. I want to keep contributing to it. I've been travelling a lot this year. I'm going to keep travelling for the book, which is wonderful. I want to be able to do it. I don't want to do any job that I can't do well. [laughs] As you know, that is my problem. I've got to talk to the store and figure that out. We may move some things around and have somebody else run the site on an ongoing basis. Maybe I'd just contribute something once a month. I don't know. It’s a lot, but it’s all fun.
Zibby: Does Parnassus still have the bookmobile? I saw pictures of that. That is amazing.
Mary Laura: Yes, the cute, little, blue bookmobile. It has been doing really fun work with schools. The bookseller who runs it, Kevin, does outreach to schools and book fairs and things. Kids love it. Kids are also the perfect customers for a bookmobile because they can stand up inside in at full height. They have a good time.
Zibby: I'm pretty short. I could probably do it too. Yes, I bet most kids. [laughs] Anyone who will listen or who cares, if they ever ask me my next dream trip, it is going to Nashville where I've never been. I want to go to Parnassus Books. I want to go to Blackberry Farm. That is my number one on the list.
Mary Laura: Blackberry’s so nice and fancy.
Zibby: Maybe I’ll go for lunch or something. I'm keeping an eye on the events. Maybe I could tie it to when some great author’s coming who I love. That's so exciting. You also have written a lot about book clubs. You wrote a piece in the O, The Oprah Magazine, which was great. You wrote how sometimes the magic of books comes after you’ve finished reading them and how it connects you to other people. I wanted you to talk more about that because I completely agree with that.
Mary Laura: I can see why you would agree with that. That's what you do. You're connecting people in conversation about books after they’ve read books.
Zibby: So hopefully I enjoy that. [laughter]
Mary Laura: I'm like you. I've always been a big reader. I love books. I love the private connection that happens between the words on the page and my own mind. That's its own relationship between a reader and a book. Then there is this whole other conversation and this whole other level of appreciation that happens after you've read a book when you go talk about that book with other people. That particular issue of Oprah’s magazine was a tribute to book clubs. What I was saying in that essay is whether you have a formal book club like a regular book club that sits down every month that talks about the same book, or you just have a group of friends or a group of internet friends, whatever, who discuss books, connecting with each other over a book is a way to connect with each other as human beings and to live richer lives. There's a whole world of appreciation and conversation that happens after the book is over.
Zibby: When do you find time to read?
Mary Laura: Oh, man. The best time to read is when I can't be doing anything else because you know I like to always be doing something productive, so on a plane, in a waiting room, in the car. There's this weird time in our evenings right now between when the kids tell me they're going to bed and when they actually do go to bed. They're actually marching around the house taking their medicine and looking for their -- it’s a half hour every night of mild background chaos. Nothing else can really be happening. I just sit on the sofa and read. They’ll swing by and go, “Mom, I can't find this piece of paper,” or whatever. All right. Great. That time every night. I read whenever I can't be doing something else.
Zibby: That's the best part about reading. It’s the only thing I do where I'm not totally distracted and I can't multitask. My brain can slow down.
Mary Laura: It’s a good feeling.
Zibby: I interviewed somebody who wrote a book called How to Break Up with Your Phone about how we can be addicted to our phones. She was saying how people can use the phone as a self-medication in a way. Then I was like, I read. Then I was like, oh, no. Maybe I'm addicted to reading. Maybe I'm dependent on -- this is probably not good. This is another issue. I’ll just keep this under wraps. [laughs]
Mary Laura: The good thing is a book is not doing -- I'm setting you free from that. You're good.
Zibby: Okay, thank you. What is coming next? Are you writing more essays with the goal of compiling them? You also wrote, I didn't even talk about, Penguins with People Problems, which you wrote and illustrated.
Mary Laura: Oh, yeah. That was my crazy little, funny little first book that was such a fluke. It wasn’t like I intended to write a book. I was just drawing weird cartoons and putting them on the internet. A publisher called and said, “Can we make that a book?” It was a total backwards from how the way book deals usually work. Someone just came to me and said, “I want to make that a book.” They were like, “Put us on the phone with your agent.” I was like, “Great. I’ll be right back.” I've got to find an agent. It’s actually a delightful way to find an agent when you already have a book deal on the end. You're like, “I just need you to negotiate this for me.” That came out in 2015. It’s still out there. It’s still selling. It’s just a cute, little, happy, animal cartoon book. It’s so different from I Miss You When I Blink. When people have said, “Is I Miss You When I Blink your first book?” it’s not technically my first book, but yeah, it kind of is. It’s the first book like this that I have done.
Zibby: Once you had your agent, did anyone ever say to you -- because I've heard that it’s not as easy to sell collections of essays as it is for full-on memoirs. I was like, see? She did this. It worked. What do you mean?
Mary Laura: No. Everybody says that. It’s not crazy. I love essay collections. As a reader, I love them.
Zibby: Me too.
Mary Laura: I see readers come into the bookstore all the time and buy them. I do understand from a business perspective. If you're just talking about popular commercial genres, essays are not at the top of the list. They're not the hottest selling thing there is. When readers in general think, “I've got to grab a book to take to the beach,” they're typically thinking a novel or some really juicy nonfiction thing that's on a particular topic. I know that in general, the people in the world are not walking around going, “Got to get my hands on a hot, new essay collection.” Just because it’s not the most popular thing does not mean that it’s impossible. It’s tricky. It’s not the easiest thing to sell.
I will say it’s also not, at least in my case and I can't speak for everybody, it was not an easy thing for me to try to sell before I had written it. I had a couple of false starts in this process. At one point I thought, I'm going to write a proposal. I'm going to sell this book based on the proposal and get a book deal. Then I will finish writing it, which is not uncommon at all in nonfiction. That's really very common. My proposal drafts were bad. They were bad because I am the type of writer who does not know what I am writing until I have written it. I could not summarize a book that didn't exist. There's a part of the proposal where you're supposed to go, “Chapter one, chapter two, chapter three.” I couldn't say what the chapters were going to be because I hadn’t sat down to write them yet. I also couldn't say what the overall message or vibe or narrative of the book was because I hadn’t written it and I didn't know. That was a period of frustration that I went through where I was like, I can't write a proposal. I'm never going to sell this book. Once I let go of that and set myself free from that expectation and said I clearly can't summarize a book I haven't written yet, the only way to do this is to just go write this thing. I took a couple years. I went off and I wrote the whole, damn book. Then the proposal wrote itself because I'd written the book. I knew what it was. It’s very easy to summarize essays you've already written. It’s very easy to look at a collection or a memoir and go, oh, this is what this is about. Then it sold really fast. I will say selling a collection of essays may be tougher if you don't know what they're about yet.
Zibby: [laughs] Good advice. Excellent advice. Do you want to write another book?
Mary Laura: I do. I really, really do. I'm so mad that my book that's out now can't just write the next book. [laughs] “I wrote you. Now you write the next one.” That's the tough thing. It never gets any easier. I'm back to square one. What do I want to write about? Let me try to figure out what that book will be. I know darn well that I won't know until I've written it. I've got to try to set aside some time to write. It’s frustrating right now because there's just not enough hours in the day. I want to be doing what I'm doing right now, which is travelling a lot and talking to people about the book. I also know that eats up some of the time I would use for writing. I'm telling myself that is okay, that I'm not writing again yet. It will happen. I need to live in this moment.
Zibby: I will release you from that guilt as you have released me from my own guilt. There is plenty of time to write another book. You can just live in the moment of this amazing other book that just came out and is so fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” and sharing all of your life with listeners.
Mary Laura: Thank you for all that you do to help people. You're a good matchmaker. You help people find the book that they need when they need it. I appreciate you doing that for this one.
Zibby: Thank you. Take care.