Mary Laura Philpott takes normalcy to task in “Lobsterman” (Issue 6), a quick, witty essay about the misunderstandings and miscalculations of childhood. In this interview, she discusses her writing strategies, from finding inspiration in fiction to beating writer’s block.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author and illustrator of Penguins with People Problems (June 2, 2015, Perigee Books), based on her Tumblr, The Random Penguins. She is the founding editor of Musing, the online literary magazine for Parnassus Books, and she contributes periodically to The New York Times, The Toast, and several other publications. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her family.
What inspired you to create this piece? “Lobsterman” says a lot about my life experience. I feel like I know a lot of people who are driven by a type-A need to succeed; and I also know a lot of people who take a quirky, offbeat approach to life. Then there are people — and I am one of these — who are both. We’re the ones who want to do things right and work really hard at every challenge that comes our way, but somehow we always end up with an answer that doesn’t quite match what everyone else does. I feel like I’m always looking around going, “Wait, how did you guys all know what to do?” Sometimes those “failures” lead to later successes, sometimes they don’t. Usually there’s at least a funny little story in there somewhere. There could be endless sequels to this piece.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? Good fiction has taught me a lot about writing nonfiction. No matter what you’re writing about, whether it’s true or made up, you always have to engage someone in the reading process. What I’m listening for in my own writing — tension, pacing, word choice, sentences that click — are things I learned by ear (or by eye, I guess), from reading really well written fiction.
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. I should be writing in my office, because it’s set up to be ergonomically correct with a supportive chair and eye-level screen and whatnot. Instead, I end up grabbing my laptop and lying on the sofa or sitting all bent-over at the kitchen counter or twirling around in a spinny-chair at Parnassus Books, where I work part-time. Hunching over a screen is how I ended up with two herniated discs, which is the nerdiest injury of all time. I never learn my lesson.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? Two things: “sit down” and also “go away,” which are opposites, so obviously you can’t do them at the same time. First, if I start working on something and it’s not coming out right, I make myself sit there and work through it and get something on the page, even if I’m 90% sure all I’m doing is creating one of the drafts that has to be thrown away to get me closer to a better draft. But when I’m done for the day, when that writing session is over, I put the piece away and don’t look at it for however long I can leave it — a day, if I have to get right back to it, or a week, if I have other things I can work on in the meantime. Ignoring it for a while and coming back to it with fresh eyes is magic.
Can you explain why it feels magic? Many writers we’ve interviewed have said the same thing and I’m always curious to hear why everyone thinks this is so. For me, personally, it’s just a matter of how much my brain can do at one time. Even if I duct-taped myself to my chair and worked from sunup to sundown and into the night, there would come a point of diminishing returns. I joke with my husband that although it might look like I’m just staring out the window when I’m “working,” I’m actually thinking very hard. There’s only so long I can keep up that level of concentration, and if it runs out while I’m in the middle of a paragraph or an idea that’s just not working, I’m probably not going to make much more progress that day. But if I come back a day later with a fresh brain, I’ve got a full tank of creative mental energy to put toward it.
How has traveling influenced your writing? Even just a little shift in climate or surroundings or time zone can shake up well-worn thought patterns and jiggle loose new ideas. But I think that goes for everything, not just writing. Life gets boring if you’re not periodically finding new ways to look at things.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? Well, like I said before, fiction can be such a good influence on nonfiction. Short fiction, in particular, sort of mirrors the size and shape of essay-length nonfiction. Some of my favorite short story writers are Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck & Other Stories), Megan Mayhew Bergman (Almost Famous Women), and Maile Meloy (Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It). For small pieces of nonfiction, there are so many good books out right now. Ann Patchett’s collection, This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage, and Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable come to mind. Whoops — I gave you five instead of one. But they are all living writers, and they are also all nice people.
We asked Mary Laura to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? One of the baby bats at the Batzilla the Bat sanctuary, which I think is in . . . Australia? Because then I could fly, and I’d have all these nice people feeding me and making me little jackets out of washcloths.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “WHAT,” yelled too loudly as an exclamation of awe/surprise/admiration.
What is your greatest extravagance? Travel
Which talent would you most like to have? Singing
What is your current state of mind? Frazzled but happy
This interview was curated by Devon Halliday, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a Comparative Literature student at Brown University.