Arkansas Literary Festival: Mary Laura Philpott

Philpott brings her Emmy Award-winning humor to her debut memoir

Mary Laura Philpott’s I Miss You When I Blink (Simon & Schuster, April 2019) is a memoir-in-essays prompted by her struggle with an identity crisis in the middle of a seemingly ‘perfect’ life. The author’s wry confessions are sure to bring laughs of recognition from readers. There’s the time Philpott bought that enormous SUV to hold her increasing family. In her words, “I drove it for a decade despite the fact that I couldn’t park it, and regularly crashed it into obstacles and other cars.” On behalf of all those who own ill-designed cars that like to crash themselves against medians, blow their tires, and lose bumpers, three cheers for Mary Laura!

Along with Philpott’s flair for humor, her essays reveal deeper insights about coming to terms with who we are, or who we might want to be instead. For example, “The Perfect Murder Weapon” is a humorous look at her own perfectionism that concludes with what seems to be a flippant, breezy question: “I just want everything to be perfect. Is that too much to ask?” But the tongue-in-cheekiness of this aside is followed by an essay called “Wonder Woman,” a reflective and touching meditation on the childhood influences that caused Philpott to grow up to be so driven. And those reflections aren’t really comical. Instead, she gently outlines the universal dilemma of parenthood: all dedicated parents want their children to have the qualities that will lead to happiness and success, but in the process of encouraging those qualities, we can accidentally plant seeds that bear less-wholesome fruit in their psyches.

A blend of whimsy and vulnerability

This authorial blend of whimsy and vulnerability is why reviewers apply the word “relatable” to Philpott’s book. And though the word may be maligned by more formal critics, “relatable” is simply shorthand for what is brave and intrinsically sympathetic about this author’s work. It’s not easy to confess one’s own flaws for public examination. But Philpott does so with humor and with the understated lyricism that comes from finding life’s truths in small, poignant moments.

Philpott knows her book’s soul, and doesn’t shy away from it. “Not everyone loves the word ‘relatable,’” she said. “But whenever someone says, ‘This book is so relatable,’ I do love it, because that was the whole point.”

Publishing a work of this kind involves certain risks known only to autobiographers. Philpott carries her courage so naturally that her reader might not even think about what it means to expose your own personal life stories to Amazon’s reviewers. Writers of fiction may have to read barbed comments about their fictional characters: how much more deeply can criticism cut if a reviewer chooses to criticize an author’s personality?

Facing the risks of self-disclosure

Philpott is preparing herself for the imminent challenge of personal reviews as her book releases. “I’m trying to steel myself for that difference—that the main character in this book is me,” Philpott says with good humor. “I work in the book business so I’m constantly reading about other people’s books, and I know how the reviews can go. I’ve sworn not to look at Amazon or Goodreads. It’s tough because if they say, “this woman is a total pain in the ass,” that’s me. But what I’ve learned in my work is that every book has its readers. A book that I think is perfection, someone else will think is terrible. And other readers will have no reaction at all. Every book can’t be for everyone. What I’m seeing, though, from the first readers of my book is that some parts may bounce off, so the reader is like, “Well, that’s nice, but I don’t feel it. But it catches fire when they hit the part that relates to them.”

Philpott shares an infectious laugh at the thought that lay internet reviewers sometimes don’t realize that, as she says with impish glee, “The author is also on the internet!” But she has found a way to mentally prepare to receive any potential personal comments.  “These stories are small pieces of my life that I’ve chosen to share, so readers are going to be reacting to just the part they’ve seen. And that’s not the same as hanging out with a person and getting to know the whole human being. I could have chosen 30 different stories from my life instead, and those stories would make for a totally different book.”

Reader reactions and the author-reader bond

Philpott sees reader reactions as a gift. “I’ve had early readers respond to the book by confiding their own stories, sometimes in very long and personal emails. And I didn’t really expect that!” she said. “People have asked if it’s a burden, but I think it’s an honor. Because what the readers are saying is that they want to respond in a way that is more than just complimenting the book. Instead, they’re saying ‘your story has now unlocked this story in me, and I want to share it with you to show what your book meant to me.’ And that’s a much more powerful reaction to a book.”

Though the author is very open about her own inner life and her own stories, she was careful with details about other people. “It’s funny to me that the book is received as exposing a lot,” she said, “because the whole time I was writing it, I felt that I was protecting a lot, especially other people’s stories. And with family members, I was very careful not to expose too much. You may have noticed that I didn’t give my children’s names. I used my husband’s name only because it’s John, and people would probably think I made that up anyway!

Hey, you don’t have this balance thing down!

The increasing self-reliance of her children was one factor that allowed Philpott the time to write this book. “My kids are teenagers now, and they’re pretty self-contained, which gives me larger chunks of work time,” she said. “I could not have written this book a decade ago, first because I wouldn’t have had the time, but also because I hadn’t processed a lot of this material while I was living through it. Now I’ve had time to reflect on some of these events with more perspective.”

With appealing candor, she describes the other secret of her accomplishment as an author who also has full-time employment and a family—she simply accepts a certain lack of life balance. “I’m kind of a workaholic, so I find time to create something every day,” Philpott said. “If you saw me up close and followed me for a day, you might say: Hey, you don’t have this balance thing down. Maybe you shouldn’t be standing up at lunch eating that sandwich with one hand and typing with the other.”

Mary Laura Philpott will breeze into the Arkansas Literary Festival, maybe brandishing a sandwich, to share more humorous insights about rediscovering our lost selves, the creative life, and her adventures in the book world.

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of the memoir-in-essays I Miss You When I Blink. Her writing has been featured in print or online by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and other publications. She’s the founding editor of Musing, the online publication of Parnassus Books, as well as an Emmy-winning cohost of the show A Word on Words on Nashville Public Television. She also wrote and illustrated the humor book Penguins with People Problems, a quirky look at the embarrassments of being human. Mary Laura lives in Nashville with her family.