20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
Last year, I bought a book called I Miss You When I Blink—partly because I loved the title, and partly because I am known to instantly purchase a hardcover or paperback if the back-cover description speaks to me. I had such an experience with this collection of essays. As a lifelong perfectionist who has always believed that if everything is completely perfect nothing will ever go wrong, I Miss You When I Blink came along at the right time to help me rip the band-aid right off of that wound.
Mary Laura Philpott thought she’d cracked the code: Always be right, and you’ll always be happy. But once she’d completed her life’s to-do list (job, spouse, house, babies—check!), she found that instead of feeling content and successful, she felt anxious. Lost. Stuck in a daily grind of overflowing calendars, grueling small talk, and sprawling traffic. She’d done everything “right,” but she felt all wrong. What’s the worse failure, she wondered: smiling and staying the course, or blowing it all up and running away? And are those the only options?
I had the chance to speak with the wonderful Mary Laura Philpott herself for the inaugural edition of this new interview series that I am calling 20 Questions. We chatted about her book, other books, her writing process, what she’s been binge-watching lately, and what’s been keeping her sane during this nightmare of a pandemic—to name only a few topics.
Some of the essays in your book I Miss You When I Blink had previously appeared elsewhere. What inspired you to publish a complete collection of essays?
A handful of the essays had indeed already been published, but actually most of the book is new material. Those new essays were what kept calling me back to my desk. I wasn’t sure they would all cohere enough to form a book, but I hoped they would. I think what I discovered as I went along was that in addition to writing lots of little stories from my life — a funny one here, a sad one there — I wanted to write a larger narrative about growing up, starting over, and making sense of the maddeningly chronological timeline of our lives.
Was there a specific moment in your life when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I can tell you my earliest writing memory: Scrawling little knockoff fairy tales on blank white paper and illustrating them in pencil, then asking my dad to take them to work and “publish” them on the Xerox machine.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing for you?
It takes so long! I’m a slow writer, which is frustrating because I’m also a person who likes instant gratification. I wish writing didn’t require so much patience, but it does.
Which was the hardest essay to write for I Miss You When I Blink?
I don’t like dwelling in unpleasant emotions, but to articulate the feeling of being lost and panicked — the feeling that forms the crisis in this book — I really had to put myself back in the frame of mind I was in when I felt that way years ago. Those parts don’t appear as a single piece, but they come up in several lines and paragraphs throughout multiple essays. I had to hole up in a hotel room for a couple of days and just go all the way down the mental rabbit hole. The pages I wrote then are the ones I pulled from whenever I needed to access that emotion as I wrote the rest of the book.
You’re the co-host of A Word on Words, a literary interview series that airs on Nashville Public Television. As a writer, what would you say is the biggest skill you also employ as a television host?
I love interviewing people! I like the research that goes into it, finding out as much as I can about the interview subject in advance. I enjoy coming up with questions and sorting out the order in which I want to ask them. I really adore the interview itself — when I let all that preparation inform the conversation, but I also let go of the plan a little bit and just go with the flow of the back-and-forth discussion. The truth is that, selfishly, I often ask my guests questions that I’m seeking answers to myself. This season, I asked Oyinkan Braithwaite (My Sister, The Serial Killer) about how she’s managing to write the next thing after the shock of her first book’s success. I loved her answer: Just keep writing, writing, writing, and don’t pause for too long. “If you stop, you’re going to get in your head.”
Favorite book of all-time?
This is a hard one to answer, but one of my favorites certainly is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
The last series you binge-watched?
Our household just finished re-watching all of The West Wing and The Newsroom, so I guess we’ve been on sort of a Sorkin kick. I welcome suggestions for what to watch next!
Your beautiful beagle has become the star of your Twitter page. Does she enjoy the attention?
Ha! Luckily, Eleanor Roosevelt doesn’t understand the Internet, but I’m sure if she did, she’d feel that all the attention is warranted. Her brother Woodstock doesn’t like having his picture taken, so she takes all his photo opportunities as well as her own.
Favorite movie of all-time?
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The parade scene makes me so happy.
If you had the chance to meet one celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I’d like to take Nora Ephron to lunch, so we could compare notes on some things.
Are you a morning person or a night person? When are you most productive and why?
Morning! I get less and less smart as the day goes on. I have to do my writing in the mornings. Afternoons are for busywork and emails.
In addition to being a bestselling author, your work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Paris Review, to name only a few. What’s one piece of advice you would give to a writer hoping to accomplish credits like those one day?
Read the outlets where you want to publish, often. Not only will all that reading make you a better writer, but you’ll become familiar with the style of each publication, so you’ll know what to pitch. If a paper typically publishes 1,100-word essays that follow a certain structure, it won’t do you any good to submit 3,000 words in a totally different format. Know their thing.
What’s one vice you wish you could give up?
Jealousy. I hate my jealous self. She’s the worst. I try to give her as little airtime as possible in my brain.
One song that you will never be sick of?
I’ll always turn up “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae when it comes on the radio.
The best book you read in the last year?
Oh, this is difficult! I put a book or two in every edition of my newsletter, so if I added up all those faves, I’d have at least 50 from the past year. How about the best one in the past week? I just finished and loved Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I appreciate the implication that I’m sane. Walking the dogs every day helps. We are all so stir-crazy in here.
If you could pick one person in your life who has inspired you the most, who would it be and why?
Can I say a circle of people? I’m inspired — and also challenged — by the people closest to me on the family tree: my parents, my spouse, my children. Those are the people you can’t get away from, you know? Every move I make bounces off at least one of them in some way. I’m either reacting to something the previous generation did or trying to live my life in a way that benefits the next generation or just generally trying to make the most of this lifetime with the person beside me. They inspire or inform everything I do.
What’s your current read?
I’m reading The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr right now. My friend Katherine Center, the novelist, recommended it.
Window seat or aisle seat? (Assuming public travel ever becomes safe again.)
Aisle, almost always, unless it’s an overnight flight, in which case I will pool all my credit card points to try to get a window seat on a short row, so I can lean on the window to sleep but still get out to walk around.
Are you working on a follow-up to I Miss You When I Blink or something else new? When can we expect to read it?
I think I am! I’m working on a set of new essays right now, sort of buzzing back and forth among them. My hope would be to finish them in the next year or so, so you can read them the year after that, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s not to make plans. We’ll see.