By Anderson McKean of Page & Pallette
Mary Laura Philpott, nationally bestselling author of I Miss You When I Blink and the new memoir Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives, writes about the overlap of the absurd and the profound in everyday life. A former bookseller, Mary Laura lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her family. Mary Laura took time to chat with PORTICO about Bomb Shelter, a brutally honest, beautifully written examination of motherhood, illness and human nature.
Q: Your book is an extraordinary collection of connected essays that is accessible to readers of all ages. Did you set out to write a book for “every reader” or did it evolve through the themes it encompasses?
A: I’m thrilled you think so! That reminds me of something the wonderful writer Garrett M. Graff said about the book – that it’s for anyone who has “ever loved someone or been loved by someone.” That is indeed what I was going for. You know how sometimes you hear a song on the radio and think, “Wow, this song is totally about me and what I’m going through right now” and it feels like it really is? I aim to do what great songwriters do: write about something specific that taps into something universal and then makes readers feel it illuminates something personal for them.
Q: In the essay titled “Bomb Shelter” you share a surprising discovery about your father’s career, but it also encapsulates the overall theme of your book — the many ways in which we provide shelter for and seek shelter from those we love — especially when the carefully built structure of our lives rumbles, and even explodes. Can you talk about how you chose that title?
A: I’d been working with another title up to that point, but once I wrote that chapter I knew I’d found the real title for the book itself. I like “Bomb Shelter” because it’s short and punchy and memorable, but also because it contains in just two words all the duality of the human experience: safety and risk, love and loss, grief and joy. So much of this book is about trying to make peace with those opposing but co-existing forces. In telling a story about a particularly uncertain and disorienting period in my life, I wanted to take a swing at answering a big question: How do we hang onto happiness and a sense of grateful celebration even as we acknowledge all that threatens the lives of everyone we care about in this world?
Q: Throughout the book, you seamlessly mix stories filled with intense emotion, such as your son’s epilepsy diagnosis, with light-hearted anecdotes of your wonderful menagerie of dogs, turtles and other critters. Was that structure intentional?
A: That’s what being alive really feels like, isn’t it? Something comes along out of the blue that turns your world forever upside down, and the next minute something happens that makes your jaw drop with amazement, and the next day there’s another gut-punch followed by some hilarious delight. We’re all bumbling around, laughing and crying and laughing again at all the surprises life throws at us. It’s comforting and kind of fun to realize that while none of us is experiencing the exact same things as someone else at the same time, we’re all on a similarly wild roller coaster ride.
Q: “I Would Like to Report an Attack upon My Soul” is one of the many essays that resonated with me. The way in which you write about the impossible task of sending your baby off to college is heartbreaking, but also hopeful. Can you share a little bit of what that transition has been like for you and your family?
A: Oh, boy. We’re still figuring it out. The nest-leaving process is a whole new phase of family life. I bought all the things on the college packing list, but it turns out the stuff is the least important part of being ready. I kept trying to anticipate what we’d all need to know and do to prepare for this big change, but I still wasn’t quite prepared for how strange it would all feel. That said, it’s kind of amazing! Young adults learn and change so much in those first months and years away from home. It’s fun to watch that rapid growth.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Bomb Shelter?
A: I hope Bomb Shelter reminds people that all the little things we do for each other really matter.
Page & Palette looks forward to hosting Mary Laura Philpott for an author event on Tuesday, September 13 at 6PM.