Grandmother, the writer

Anne Lamott : "Some Assembly Required."
Anne Lamott : "Some Assembly Required."

In "Some Assembly Required," author Anne Lamott writes about the birth of a son's son and the realization that "I'm not in charge of anything, it turns out."

Posted: April 10, 2013

Twenty years ago, Anne Lamott wrote Operating Instructions, a memoir about the first year of her son's life. She was single, 35, and a recovering alcoholic.

Baby Sam came along and transformed everything, the way a baby does. That same year, Lamott's best friend died of cancer. Lamott captured the day-to-day details of both events in a timeless journal that is still popular today.

So it seemed a bit stunning - even to Lamott - when last year she released a follow-up, Some Assembly Required, about that son's first son. But the shock of becoming a grandmother 10 years earlier than she expected gave way when she set eyes on Jax Jesse Lamott.

"Jax is just luscious, unbelievably sweet and fun," Lamott said by phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is speaking Wednesday night at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

In Some Assembly Required, Sam is 19 when his ex-girlfriend Amy discovers she's pregnant. They get back together to raise Jax, but the relationship is tenuous. Sam balances art school with fatherhood, Amy is unemployed, they bicker, and it's all Lamott can do to keep her opinions to herself.

"It's hard for me to forget I'm not one of his parents," Lamott said of Jax, who will be 4 in July. "I'm not in charge of anything, it turns out."

In the book, Lamott worries every time Amy takes Jax to visit her family in Chicago. Sometimes, neither Lamott nor Sam hears from her for days. But Amy always returns.

"They split up about a year and a half ago," Lamott said, but Amy lives in the Bay Area, "so they're raising Jax together."

Considering how much she reveals in her books, Lamott put strict limits on updates about Sam, Amy, and Jax.

"I'm so hyper-hyper-sensitive" of people's feelings," she said. "Ninety percent of my life I don't share, and 98 percent of my friends' and family's lives I don't share. I'm not out to hurt anyone."

When her editors pitched this book, Lamott was skeptical, thinking it might be exploitative of Sam and his young family. But he was all for it, "he was the incentive," she said, noting that he wrote about 20 percent of the book.

"I can honestly say I love this book more than any other book I wrote," she said. "I love Operating Instructions, but mostly because Sam loves it so much."

Some Assembly Required is "kind of like a photo album of short movies," Lamott said. "They'll be over later. Every short thing should be saved."

That includes her sometimes-reluctant sojourns away from Jax. "I go to India and to an Eastern European concentration camp in the book," she noted. "You don't usually see these things in a baby book.

"People say, 'You write like you speak,' but I write so many drafts of everything," said Lamott, who also wrote the popular writing tome Bird by Bird. "It's a simple book. You put everything in a journal and decide what you're going to put in. I take out about a third of it."

Some Assembly Required differs from Operating Instructions, Lamott said, because, "I am a different person. I was so poor when I had Sam. I am sober 26 to 27 years.

"Also, as a parent, there's no way to prep. It's 24/7. As a grandparent, you're with the baby weekly or fewer."

At nearly 60, Lamott said she considers herself semiretired, even while she is working on two more books: "I know what I'm doing for the next two years."

Last year, Sam accompanied her on the book tour; this time she's going solo.

"It's hard for me to be on the road because I'm such a homebody with my two dogs, cat, Sam and Jax, and church community," she said. "It's harder and harder as you get older to tour."

But changing technology has made one thing about touring easier. "With the iPad, I can take my work with me very easily now," she said. "I'll give myself short assignments, like a 10-page section that is self-contained."

She also writes some on her BlackBerry, she added. "Probably my greatest skill is that I can thumb-type like nobody's business."


Contact Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com.

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