Author Q&A: Mary Laura Philpott

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Elena Bowes interviews Mary Laura Philpott about her recent bestselling memoir, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives.

Photo credit: Heidi Ross

Always with an eye out for danger and joy, Philpott woke one morning at 4am to hear a violent banging noise coming from within the house. That noise turned out to be her then teenage son, unconscious, having a seizure on the bathroom floor. This traumatic event made Philpott wonder, if this could happen, what else could? Bomb Shelter grapples with life, death, love and how to be human in a world that is sometimes scary and unkind.

As one critic said, Philpott makes the ordinary feel extraordinary. Or as another said, anyone with a beating heart will relate to her book. In 2018 Philpott wrote an article entitled Surviving the Ordinary: Why We Need Memoirs of Regular Lives. Her memoir feels like a life less ordinary by virtue of her deft writing skills.

You write “Few things cheer me up as much as giving a pep talk that cheers up someone else.” What cheery advice would you give a wannabe memoirist?

I’d remind anyone with the goal of writing a book that it doesn’t take superhuman powers or some kind of special permission to write. It does take skill and art and an understanding of the components of storytelling, but those are things you can develop with training and practice over time. It also takes a lot of patience and commitment. But it doesn’t take magic or a decree from the heavens.

In your acknowledgements you thank your husband and note how he said to you early on, “I hope you’re writing all this down.” My question is: Were you? Your book follows a two-year period starting with when your then-teenage son had a violent seizure on the bathroom floor. You’ve interspersed the telling of those two years with several memories from your childhood, plus everyday life (that skirt-hating woman). How did you keep all these stories straight in your head for Bomb Shelter

Any of the stories I tell from childhood are ones that had some kind of importance to me; so they’re still relatively vivid. Sometimes all I have left of a story is a couple of flashbulb memories or the memory of someone saying a certain line, and in those instances, I admit it outright: Here is what I remember, the rest is a bit hazy. But generally, if I’ve chosen a story from long ago to write about, it’s because it’s one of the few old memories that really stuck around.

As for more recent events, I don’t keep a journal, but even so, I end up having copious written documentation of my life, as we all do: text messages, emails, calendar reminders. It’s amazing what you can piece together just from your phone! And then of course all that more recent stuff is still pretty accessible in my memory.

Amidst the anxiety and sadness, there is so much humour in Bomb Shelter. In the chapter “I Would Like to Report an Attack Upon My Soul” you receive a brochure about preparing for your child to go away to college. You are not ready. You are incensed. You write: “What is this leave home situation. I am my child’s home. Just ask my uterus. What’s that? My uterus is not picking up the phone?” This is one of many, many funny moments. Did you have a formula for humour when planning your chapters, or within each story, tell a joke or two to keep it from getting too heavy?

Thank you. I don’t have any sort of formula for achieving that balance of darkness and light, but humour is an essential part of my worldview. If you look closely, almost any situation has something to laugh about in it. People are funny. The ways we respond to our realities are funny. All the little foibles that make us human and allow us to relate to one another across our broadly difference experiences… those are funny!

Guilt plays a big role in your book. Your six-year-old son tells you “I miss you when I blink” (also the title of your previous bestseller). Was that him telling you he was having a mini seizure? How do you let parental guilt (which I think most parents suffer from, I certainly do) not get the better of you, not haunt you?

Oh boy, I think guilt comes with the territory of love, certainly of parenthood. It’s a side effect of how much we care. We love our children so much, and we want so much to do right by them, so of course we fear that we might not be parenting them well enough. Anytime I make a mistake as a parent — which is all the time — I’m eaten up with feelings of guilt about how I failed my children. What did I miss? Where did my instincts go wrong? What did I say or do that I wish I could take back? I try to consciously let go of that guilt when I can. We’re all doing our best, including me. All I know to do is try to operate from a place of love, always.

Structure determines story. Do you agree and if so, how does your memoir-in-essays determine your story?

YES. Oh, I believe this so much. Structure is story! A story starts with a question or a disruption; what happens next is a response to that first thing; what happens after that is the result of that second thing; etc. Even if you’re not telling a story in chronological order — the order in which the events unfolded in real time — you’re choosing to tell your reader certain things in a certain order. You’re guiding their mind to follow your story in a particular way. If you change the order in which you dole out the scenes, that story comes together entirely differently in the reader’s head. Bomb Shelter moves around through time. But the “emotional plot,” as I call it, follows a certain story arc.

Boundaries: Can you explain how you protected others while writing your memoir — your “once upon a time” rule?

I believe wholeheartedly that you can be a very private person — and respect the privacy of other people in your life — and also be a memoirist. It requires having a strong sense of the story you’re telling, what it is and what it isn’t. I have no desire to tell anyone else’s life story or to violate anyone’s privacy. I honestly don’t have all that much to tell my own life story. But I do have an interest in writing about the human experience in a way that’s both enlightening and entertaining, and I’m willing to pull certain episodes from my own life and use them to do that.

If I find that there’s a certain scene I absolutely need to write in order to tell my larger story, and that scene involves other people, first I try to remove those people from the scene as much as I can. If their involvement isn’t central to what the me-character is going through, I write around them. If in doubt, leave it out. But if I have to include them, that’s when I use my “once upon a time” rule, which works like this:

I write and edit the scene, then put it away for a while — at least a few days. When I get it back out, I read it with fresh eyes. If, after reading it, I find that I can describe what I’ve read by saying, “Once upon a time there was a woman who…” then I know I’ve done my job well. I’ve kept the perspective solidly in my own eyes and ears and I haven’t slipped into telling someone else’s story. But if I realise that the best way to describe what I’ve just read is by saying, “Once upon a time there was a boy who…” (or “a man who” or “a girl who” or basically anyone who’s not me), then I toss the draft and start over. Everyone has their own boundaries and intentions, but for me, the rule is never to assume I can or should tell someone else’s story. That’s not my business.

You said in an interview that you knew the last line of your book before you started writing. Tell us about that.

I did! I probably shouldn’t spoil it, so I won’t say here what that last line is. But this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the “emotional plot.” I knew the emotional note I wanted to hit with the last essay and final words. So as I was putting the chapters in order and writing toward that ending, I kept that landing spot in sight.

What books did you read during the process of writing Bomb Shelter that surprised you or helped you in unforeseen ways?

Oh gosh, I read everything. You name it. Memoir, thriller, romance, science, poetry… We all become better writers through reading, and I wanted to be the best writer I could be while working on this book. Reading is like taking daily vitamins.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

I currently have no fingerprints on my left hand because I burned the hell out of my fingertips trying to fiddle with the filter on our clothes dryer while it was still hot. Ouch. 

What’s next?

Sitting by the tree and staring into the twinkly lights. Downtime.

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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