The Most Revealing Thing I Can Say: An Interview With Mary-Louise Parker, Author of Dear Mr. You
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I may as well play with my cards face-up here: I’m something of a devotee of Mary-Louise Parker’s; devotee sounding somehow more mature to my ear than, say, “superfan.” I was a freshman in high school when Weeds premiered, and I had a suspicion, just from watching the pilot, that it would come to mean a great deal to me over time. And it has. (I even have a tattoo on my wrist that is the title of my favorite episode, “Go,” in which Nancy Botwin, inspiringly, burns down her house; a reminder to myself to burn down all the figurative houses I need to.) As the only child of a single mother, it was extremely meaningful for me to see a single mother in celluloid portrayed with such humanity — flawed, surely, but never vilified for it. My mother and I would laugh at how eerily similar Nancy Botwin’s relationship to her oldest son, Silas, was to the relationship we had. (Though, I should say that my mother never dealt marijuana nor did she ever marry a Mexican drug kingpin.) By the time the series ended, I was a senior in college, and I remember vividly how much I wept during the final scene, which is, for my money, one of the great endings in TV. I’ve also had the good fortune to see Parker on Broadway, in stellar productions of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler and Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone.
So, suffice it to say that when I heard Parker was releasing a book of essays, I was ecstatic. I had high hope and high expectations, and Dear Mr. You more than exceeded them. It’s a stunning, accomplished work, gigantic-hearted and wise and acerbic and vulnerable. The sentence-level writing is staggeringly good, too, and after having read it three times now, my primary impression is that it’s deeply unfair and greedy for one person to be this skilled at so many things. Written as a series of letters to men — including letters to her father, a cabdriver, an orderly at a hospital, and three exes she addresses as Cerberus, among many others — Dear Mr. You is expertly crafted, unforgettable, and hopefully only the beginning of Mary-Louise Parker’s publishing career.
Having the chance to speak with Parker over the phone was nothing short of euphoric. She was so gracious with her time, and so thoughtful in her answers. If you want to see this chat continue in person — and also happen to live in or around Austin — I’ll be in conversation with Parker at Bookpeople, January 12th, at 7pm. She also has tour dates in New York, Boston, Iowa City, D.C., San Francisco, L.A., and Dallas.
Vincent Scarpa: I was so excited when I saw Dear Mr. You had a release date. And then I read Mary Karr’s gorgeous blurb and was doubly excited. After reading it three times, I just can’t say enough good things about it. I think many are going to be stunned by how brilliant a book it is — not “good as far as celebrity memoirs go,” but brilliant far beyond that distinction. But I myself had high expectations going in because I saw you speak with Ryan Adams at the New York Public Library in 2009 and thought, Anyone who knows the importance of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In The Waiting Room” knows what’s up. And I knew, too, that you’d read one of my very favorite stories of all time, Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” for the audiobook of David Sedaris’s anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. So, in my mind, you’d always been in the literary crowd, and I’d always been awaiting the arrival of this book, well before it was announced. All that to say: I’m wondering how exactly this book came to be. How long ago and in what context were you approached?
Mary-Louise Parker: People had approached me a couple of times over the years, but I think they wanted me to write a different kind of book. I think they wanted it to be more typical, and more about me, and I wasn’t really interested in writing about me at all. The fact that I wrote about me as much as I did in the book was really surprising in the end, but that’s the book that evolved out of what I thought were these two related pieces I’d written for Esquire. They asked me to write about men and it came out as a letter and I really enjoyed writing it. I felt like I could’ve kept writing that letter for about a decade, forever, for the rest of my life. And then they asked me to write about my father and that initially, oddly, came out in letter form, too. I thought there was something to that direct addressing of the male. Different people started occurring to me, so I wrote a few more. And I was trying to figure out how it would be a book.
I kept meeting with literary agents and not really connecting with them. And then I met Eric Simonoff and he was just like this zen master. He just said all the right things. I didn’t know anything about publishing. In fact, when we got responses from publishers and I was talking to them, the only way I could understand it was by asking, you know, “If Journey was a publisher and Tom Waits was a publisher, or, if Barbara Streisand was a publisher and Rickie Lee Jones was a publisher, which one would this be?” I had to be told, you know, this is the Elvis Costello of publishing, this is the Tom Waits of publishing. Treating it that way made things very clear to me, and it’s still the easiest way for me to understand the individual publishing houses.
VS: I’d love to talk about the form of the book. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a memoir-in-letters before. If one even exists, I don’t know about it. What about the idea of an addressee — the notion of writing for or toward someone — was liberating for you in the process of writing and putting together the book? Conversely, did that constraint ever feel like it was limiting you in any way?
…if I know what the framework is then I know how to make it my own.
MLP: Never, no, it was completely liberating. I’m someone who likes to have really clear boundaries so that I can break them, or twist them, or whatever, but if I know what the framework is then I know how to make it my own. Much of my existence has been very driven by my awareness of men — where they fit into my life and where I fit into theirs — but it was really just about humanity in general, how we sift through our memories. It’s funny, the people that remain. It’s not always the people you would expect. There are people that were hugely important in my life that I wanted to write a letter to, but that letter didn’t necessarily come. There were very obvious people, also, but I felt I’d already said everything to them. But then, you know, some guy I knew at a health food store thirty years ago — for some reason he just loomed really present to me, really specific. He was sort of iconic in my life and stood for a lot of things, and that time period stood for a lot of things.
A lot of it I didn’t understand until I wrote it. Like the letter to my movement teacher in college. There were teachers at school who I was really connected to and who I loved and who I had stronger relationships with, but that relationship affected me the most, in a way, because it was someone who didn’t like me. And I learned from it. I learned from him letting me change his mind about me. So, yeah, it wasn’t always the people who you’d think but it was very, very freeing, to answer your question.
VS: Was that the case with “Dear Popeye,” which is one of my favorite letters in the book?
MLP: “Popeye” was more like a rush. It was almost more of an orgasm in a way. Or orgasmic, not orgasm. It came out like sex.
VS: And it’s one of the best-written sex scenes I’ve read, truly. They’re incredibly hard to write.
MLP: Thank you! They really are. I loved writing about sex, the same way that I like acting it, because it’s something that’s usually so generalized, but the more specific you get with it, the more interesting it gets.
VS: I’m assuming that none of these letters were ever sent, so I’m wondering if you see publication as a sort of stamp on all of them, sending them all out into the world at once?
MLP: Oh, what a good question. Yes, in a way, but obviously with some of the most important ones, that person might not necessarily recognize it’s them. I think some of the other ones deliberately won’t be read. “Dear Neighbor” I gave to my neighbor for his birthday and he loved it. I gave “Dear Abraham” to Abraham — he’s the only one in the book whose actual name I used. I didn’t know what else to call him and he just said, “Call me that!” I told him today that I got a note from someone who said they’d read the book and that “Dear Abraham” made them cry and he said, “What a load!”
VS: Memoirs written by the famous are often turned to with expectations that they will be “revealing.” No one is so enlightened, I don’t think, as to be immune to gossip or juicy details. I know that I personally bought Catherine Deneuve’s diaries solely because I’d read that she discussed the turmoil of working with Bjork on Dancer in the Dark, and I obviously needed to read about that. But I think what’s so amazing about this book is that, yes, some of the content is “revealing,” but it’s really at the level of language where you’re at your must vulnerable and risk-taking. I’m wondering if you ever felt a pressure toward disclosure of a variety that you weren’t interested in; it seems like you’ve been approached to write that kind of book. I love what you say at the end of “Dear Mr. Cabdriver”: “It was, in the end, much worse and more necessary than I would be willing to reveal, which is probably the most revealing thing I can say.”
The things that are omitted — some are omitted because I didn’t want to write about them, and then some are omitted because I wasn’t inspired to write about them. But I was in control of it.
MLP: I think you’re right. That statement is one of the most revealing things about me, because it’s basically saying, “I’m not going to tell you anything I don’t want to tell you, and the things I don’t tell you are far more revealing about me than the things that I do.” The things that are omitted — some are omitted because I didn’t want to write about them, and then some are omitted because I wasn’t inspired to write about them. But I was in control of it. So were I writing about my life, it would be a much different book. And were I writing a memoir about my life that I wanted a lot of people to buy, because it was salacious or something — and I couldn’t do that — I think it would be a very interesting book for people who wanted to read that kind of thing. But that kind of stuff is not in this book. In fact, when my agent sent out some of the pieces, he sent them out blind, without telling the publishers who wrote it, and they had no idea it was me, or that it was even an actress necessarily.
VS: The way that you write about your children is so beautiful, so moving. Maybe my favorite line in the book is when your son says, in response to a woman in the park who has called you stupid, “Mean lady, you are the F word.”
MLP: Isn’t that hysterical? And you know what, the other day I found my journal from back then and they also called her “a dammit.” I wish I’d seen that journal, I could’ve put that in! My daughter said, “You are a dammit!” In the audiobook, my son says that line. He came into the studio and read it.
VS: That was actually one of my questions, whether or not you were reading the audiobook for this.
MLP: I didn’t want to and I kept absolutely refusing before I’d even finished the book. I said, “Just so you know, I’m not reading the audiobook.” And I famously say, “I’m unequivocally never doing this,” and then cut to me completely doing it and saying, “Oh, this isn’t so bad!” I didn’t think I’d be able to read “Dear Oyster Picker” [the final essay] without crying. But I think it came out all right.
VS: You say you tend to gravitate more toward poetry and the short story. I wonder if you might rattle off some practitioners of either form whose work you feel fed or known by. Who should we not fail to read?
MLP: My absolute favorite is Mark Strand. He was my guy. That was a big blow when we lost him. I loved him so, so much. Who else? Wallace Stevens. Kevin Young — I just read Book of Hours, which I thought was beautiful. I like Sharon Olds. I like this guy Andrew Zawacki. I like Phillip Levine a lot; I have one of his poems stenciled on my wall. And I actually have a Stanley Kunitz poem on my wall in the country as well. I like Charles Simic. I love Tory Dent’s What Silence Equals. I love Galway Kinnell — his poem about 9/11 (“When The Towers Fell”) is one of my favorite poems. One of my favorite lines of a poem ever is in the midst of that poem when he says “Sorry, sorry, good luck, thank you.” I love Bob Hicock — he has a great poem called “Duh.” You should look that up, I think you’ll like it.
For short stories, well, I love Lorrie Moore, but I guess everyone loves Lorrie Moore, don’t they? I love Edna O’Brien. I love Deborah Eisenberg. I love Primo Levi; people don’t talk about him enough. I loved This is How You Lose Her.
And they’re not stories, they’re essays, but I just loved The Empathy Exams. It’s just so great. I love a writer where sometimes I feel like they’re shouting a little bit. I can tell when she’s quiet, when she’s confused, and when she’s getting louder, like in that essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” I mean, god! She’s spectacular.