Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Unmitigated Mercies

By Marion Winik

MARCH 29, 1999:  Widely worshipped for her straight talk on motherhood in Operating Instructions (she actually admitted to the terrifying impulse many of us have secretly felt, to grab dear Baby by his heels and bang him against a wall) and for her insights on writing in Bird by Bird (nuts-and-bolts advice on subduing the evil twins, self-doubt and pride), Anne Lamott has let her readers know for some time that Jesus Christ is her personal savior. For the more-or-less reformed party people, bohemians, and leftists who form her core audience, this has been perplexing information. In Traveling Mercies (Pantheon, $23 hard), she sits down and explains it all: how she found and fed her abiding faith, and what it has come to mean in her life.

"None of the adults in our circle believed," she writes in the "Overture" to this collection of essays. "Believing meant that you were stupid. Ignorant people believed, uncouth people believed, and we were heavily couth. My dad was a writer and my parents were intellectuals who went to the Newport Jazz Festival every year. ... They were fifties Cheever people, with their cocktails and affairs. They thought practicing Catholics insane, ridiculous in their beliefs, and morally wrong to have so many children; also, the non-Italian Catholics were terrible cooks."

Yet combing through the Northern California childhood now familiar to readers of her memoirs and novels, she finds the early seeds of her theism: the Christian Scientist mom of a friend who told you that "you were a perfect child, that you were entirely good, and that everything was fine, all evidence to the contrary." Later, at college, she fell in with Jews who trained her in Yiddish, gave her an ad hoc bat mitzvah, and explained key theological points such as "Jews don't camp." Through her 20s and early 30s, as drugs and alcohol drove her ever closer to self-destruction, her smoldering ember of belief refused to go out, until she stumbled into the place that has become her spiritual home, a black gospel church in Marin City called St. Andrew Presbyterian.

And from there has come, I think she would say, all that is strong and good in her life. She quit drinking, became a mom, not to mention a person she can respect, a person who likes her own hairdo, can eat without throwing up, offers actual aid to those struggling with problems great and small, has the inner strength to tell her kid he has to go to church and he may not paraglide, and has even made peace with her butt and thighs. "I decided to take them with me proudly wherever I went," she writes. "I decided, in fact, on the way to the beach, that I would treat them as if they were beloved elderly aunties, the kind who did embarrassing things at the beach, like roll their stockings into tubes around their ankles, but whom I was proud of because they were so great in every real and important way."

You know, I feel I am a close personal friend of Anne Lamott and her aunties. There's probably a couple million of us by now, and most of us have never even met her. So for the benefit of all her many, many Austin friends, we called to see how she's doing, now that a couple hundred zillion copies of Traveling Mercies are in print and it's rappelling up that literary Mt. Everest, The New York Times bestseller list.

Austin Chronicle: It's so exciting to see Traveling Mercies take the country by storm, but I think die-hard Lamott fans are just as crazy about the novels. What's the distinction for you?

Anne Lamott: Well, a novel takes a lot more stamina -- more time -- like, at least three years. This book felt easy in the same way Bird by Bird was easy: almost waiting at the tip of my tongue. I've been talking about doing an overarching spiritual autobiography for so long. I wrote most of it in the form of bi-weekly essays for the online magazine Salon, put them together, injected some collagen, as well as everything I could think of that might possibly be of help to anyone, and voila: Traveling Mercies.

AC: We were crushed you didn't come to Austin on your tour. What have you been reading at the bookstores?

AL: I went on the road during the last week of the impeachment hearings, so the forgiveness section was a natural. It's filled with my deep loathing of the right wing, but my point is, when you come right down to it, I'm not that different from Ken Starr. Like him, I'm convinced that I'm right and the other side is wrong. Like him, I have a terrible time with forgiveness. It's part of our collective madness to hold on to the hostility and righteousness, the hate and the spewage. We've all got to start by noticing the delusion of blame, the conviction that other people are our problem, and the sure knowledge that we are not like these awful people. We are not like Linda Tripp, no sir. Or Strom Thurmond. Or Asa Hutchinson. Or my personal favorite, Bay Buchanan -- she's so insane she makes Pat look like Dick Gephardt.

AC: How's your love life?

AL: I'm single and that's perfect for me right now. Because if I'm with someone, I'm not able to have unabashed success without having to ruin it so the guy won't feel bad. Actually, I might be happier than I've ever been right now. Sam is nine, and he's really easy. God must have looked through his Rolodex and assigned me an easy soul. He's so much fun, very loving yet fiercely independent. I'm much clingier than he is at this point. ... You know, I've been sober for so long now, it's second nature. Every year, I learn to bear a little more reality, a little quieter and less interesting life. I learn to tolerate it without feeling driven to create drama, to juice it up with adrenaline and energy so I won't be bored. I feel something I would dare to call peace.

AC: But isn't this success thing pretty exciting?

AL: What really excites me is competition. You know, I log on and check the Amazon Hot 100 list and get into this horserace with the Dalai Lama, who's got a new book out too: The Art of Happiness. If the Lama gets ahead of me, whew, watch out.

AC: How do the Christians feel about your Christianity?

AL: Many are actually mad as hell. When I go on call-in shows I hear from them, and sometimes they call me at home. Often they have these very sweet Southern accents and leave these very sweet messages with no name and no phone number saying I'm going to rot in hell for all eternity. I just want to pick up the phone and say, "You know, I have a little boy here who's listening to your drive-by hate." Some don't appreciate my discussing butts and thighs in the context of faith, and ever since I reviewed Pat Robertson's novel, I think I've been on some kind of enemies list. It's this apocalyptic novel, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Democrat, anti-California: all about how the world comes to an end with a Democratic president in office who didn't have the foresight to implement Star Wars, and the Antichrist is of course a Jewish male. When that review ran, I got 50 hate calls. But people on the other side are mad at me too. They phone in and want me to explain 2,000 years of Christian atrocity. What can I say? I say, thank you so much for calling.

AC: Which reminds me of your two favorite prayers.

AL: Oh yes. "Help me help me help me" and "Thank you thank you thank you."

AC: No, thank you.

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