Book Review - Anne Lamott teams with her son to document his first year of fatherhood
Lamott follows up her seminal Operating Instructions with Some Assembly Required
I am grateful to the cool, lanky writer who swung by my desk a few weeks back with an advanced copy of Anne Lamott's latest nonfiction book, Some Assembly Required. "Here, you want this?" he asked. "It's not really my thing." A huge Lamott fan, I accepted the book with about as much grace as I could muster, considering I wanted to smack the gifted young-un over the head with it and say, "What the hell is wrong with you?" I found out later he'd never read Lamott's Bird by Bird, one of the most revered and referenced writing guides of all time. I promised to loan him my copy.
Lamott is the author of New York Times best-sellers Grace (Eventually), Plan B, Traveling Mercies, and Operating Instructions, as well as the novels Imperfect Birds and Rosie, and is a frequent guest on NPR.
When her son Sam found out he would become a father at the age of 19, Lamott braced herself for grandmotherhood and began journaling about the first year with grandson, Jax, as well as her relationship with her son Sam and his girlfriend Amy. With writing contributions from Sam, the resulting book, Some Assembly Required, is a collection of funny and poignant stories about personal shortcomings, dealing with life's unexpected turns, and family members you love who make you nuts.
The book cover says it's written "with Sam Lamott." How did the actual writing process work?
It was crazy, oh my God. You know there was a preface and I asked him to write that. And then it was sort of like having a teenager in high school where you ask them and they're really glad to do it. And then you have to ask them 10 times and then they do it but they're really mad at you. And then other pieces I just felt very strongly that I wanted him to write: kind of a set piece on my brother's wedding, and then one on Father's Day. Those are actually my two favorite pieces in the whole book.
And then I would just beg and nag, nag and bribe, and threats, underline threats. It worked when he was a little boy. It works somewhat less effectively now. There were a lot of times when he'd tell me a story and I'd say please send it in an email. Or sometimes he'd call to check in and I could tell that he was dealing with something really beautiful and profound and I'd say, "Wait, wait, wait! I'm running to get my laptop" or "Let me go get my notebook!" and I'd write everything down verbatim and then I'd read it back to him and say, "Is this what you said?"
You've written so many books that include details about your personal life, so I'm thinking your friends and family must be used to seeing themselves in your work. But this was all new to Jax's mom and her family. Were there ever times when they said something was off-limits?
I truly knew when things were off-limits. I didn't write very private stuff about Amy and her family. And I let Amy and her family go through it and anything that they felt I'd even gotten wrong I just took out. I just wanted this to be a book that captured this year that was really beautiful and hard. I certainly didn't want to ruffle any feathers. I just wanted it to be a book that was a gift to Jax. But I also, of course, wanted her family to feel really positive and good about it. I think it reads like a love letter to her Amy because she's so strong and kind of fierce and determined. That's really what I wanted to capture.
I don't write and air my family's dirty laundry. I don't share the goods with the public. People know that. To the people who say, "Oh, you write such intimate stuff," I say, "Tell me one intimate thing you think you know about me. That I think my butt's too big? Or that I wish my thighs weren't as jiggly?" Because it's not the goods. It's not the stuff I talk about with my best friends. It's not the intimate details of my conversations with Sam, which are private. So, it's sort of like if you imagine a bulls-eye. It's like to me it's about three concentric circles out, and I wasn't going to write about the stuff in the first and second circles.
Do you have any thoughts or insights to share with families dealing with the mix of emotions around a teen pregnancy?
It kind of takes a whole book to talk about it, but Amy was 20 when she got pregnant, so she wasn't quite a teen. Sam was 19. So they were on the cusp. But teenagers are gonna have sex, you know? It really does take a book to capture both how beautiful and exquisite a new life is, and how deeply, desperately everybody fell in love with our little baby, including Sam and Amy.
At the same time, it's very hard. There's supposed to be some time at the end of high school and the beginning of your adulthood when you find out who you are, when you find out what you love, what your boundaries are, what your deepest heart's longings are, and what makes you feel most fully alive. I think that's why parents feel worried and sad when their kids get pregnant so early. I was 35 and I kinda semi-sorta knew who I was and I'd had a lot of books published, but by the same token it was extremely hard. I was exhausted all the time; I was broke all the time. It impacted my work very dramatically.
Was the book Sam's idea?
No. My editor had suggested that I do a sequel to Operating Instructions but I didn't really want to, I thought it would be exploitive. And my editor said, "Not if you didn't exploit anyone." And then I called up Sam and he said, "Oh my God, it would be fantastic" because he loved Operating Instructions so much. He wanted Jax to have a book all his own.
Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott. Riverhead Books. $26.95. 288 pp.