16 April, 2019
Mary Laura Philpott: Author of I Miss You When I Blink (released April 1, 2019)
Interview by Karin Pendley Koser
I had a lovely chat with writer and sometime illustrator Mary Laura Philpott, a week or so before her new memoir-in-essays book, I Miss You When I Blink, debuted April 1 in Nashville and her whirlwind book tour was launched. About 20 years ago, we worked on the writing and marketing staff of a major children’s hospital at the same time and interacted in other ways after we each left. I hadn’t talked to her since a few years before she moved to Nashville with her family in 2014. Mary Laura is a bookseller/social marketer at Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books in Nashville and also co-hosts an author interview program on Nashville Public Television. She’s had essays published in the New York Times, O the Oprah Magazine, Washington Post and many other publications and writes Musing, the blog for Parnassus Books.
While Mary Laura’s current work life is an enviable blend of her most favorite things to do, that and her personal identity weren’t always so fully realized.
Karin Pendley Koser: Do you have your elevator speech for I Miss You When I Blink ready?
Mary Laura Philpott: Oh boy, I haven’t got that totally down yet. I like your take on it, that it’s about the struggles between who you are, all the parts of you and who you think you should be, and finding the path to self-acceptance. I’ll add that I use humor a lot and am not one for holding much back.
KPK: What can readers expect from your memoir?
MLP: It’s a blend of personal essays, including many new ones and several that have been previously published chronicling my post-college life doubts and struggles to find a community and place that felt right for me and my family. We moved a lot when I was a child so I learned to fit in where I was and didn’t always find that choices I made after college fit me. That led to some depression, though that’s not a main focus of the book.
KPK: You and your family had made a good home for yourselves in Atlanta, you had a good marriage and had chosen a good neighborhood and good schools for your children; why the move to Nashville?
MLP: There are a number of things I talk about in my book and it’s hard to pick apart the layers, separate the strands and figure out what helped me know I wasn’t in the right place or profession. It wasn’t any one thing. We moved to Nashville after my sense of self felt cloudy, and after I was offered a great opportunity to work at Parnassus Books, a great indie book store there founded by writer Ann Patchett.
KPK: How did you go from being an editor in your early career to a writer who pours out such authentic and self-aware prose as you have with the essays in I Miss You When I Blink?
MLP: It was not as much of a leap as it seems; a part of your brain turns on and says what I can write about today? So, it was about what I was doing that day, or some memory I had. When we lived in Ireland for several months for my husband’s job, I would write long emails to my friends. The more I started writing little things, the more I enjoyed it – then I published them here and there and got confidence; “you know, people are actually getting something out of what I write” and then it just picked up steam.
KPK: Over how many years to did you write these essays?
MLP: I started with a blog and I read a lot of essays; I still do. I read for a long time before submitting some work to the New York Times’ essay section. That led to me doing a series of parenting themed pieces for them in the regular Motherlode column.
What influences you to begin writing?
It’s what I’m drawn to do, but I clearly fit it around other responsibilities; you know – family, parenting, animals (I’m a huge dog lover) and my jobs at Parnassus and Nashville Public Broadcasting. I think my early days of editing and writing professionally gave me an ability to sort of write on command.
Do you ever experience Impostor Syndrome as a writer?
Oh yes, that feeling of who cares about my writing! I figured out a work-around for that; pretend no one cares as you write. You’re just writing for yourself. That got me to a place of not being able to turn off concentrating on my own work and then a few friends read it and liked it and now here I am, terrified there won’t be enough readers for a book of real-life essays. [*Interviewer’s note – by all accounts so far, that won’t happen; her book tour events are packed and I Miss You When I Blink is racking up many book list accolades.]
How often do you write and where?
For me, a three-day weekend is best but not always realistic, so I try to write every day even if not for long stretches. I closet myself in my home office as often as I can when I’m in Nashville and make myself get something on the page. It can be fifteen minutes or as much as an hour and a half.
What recent non-fiction books inspired you?
My recent favorites are I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell which I think is the pinnacle of what you can do in this genre. Alex Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays has me thinking that if I work really, really, hard, I can do this. Educated by Tara Westover is amazing.
What’s next for you?
The book tour is scheduled into June so far; that’s keeping me very busy. There’s this prevailing wisdom that the smartest way to preserve your sanity while on your book tour is to start your next book. I’m planning to enjoy the tour and am not there yet, but I have a few ideas!