Mary Laura Philpott, BOMB SHELTER

Mary Laura Philpott, BOMB SHELTER

Mary Laura Philpott returns to discuss her latest memoir, Bomb Shelter, which was selected as an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review. Mary Laura tells Zibby about her mental spatial awareness and how it informs her sentence structure, the main themes that thread the chapters of this book together, and why she loves discovering art she didn’t initially think she would enjoy. Mary Laura also shares what it’s like to write a memoir and have strangers connect with it while not necessarily realizing that they don’t fully know you.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary Laura. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives.

Mary Laura Philpott: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Explosive is a perfect word for the success of this book. You were here in New York at the beginning of your tour, which started off with a lot of airplane issues and all of that. I feel like the universe is shaking you around, good, bad, up, down, sideways, as you go through this tour. Oh, my gosh.

Mary Laura: People keep asking, how is book tour going post-COVID? I’m like, you know what I have learned? We are not really quite post-COVID. The world is pretty functional, but we got to be flexible. Travel changes. Sometimes you’ve got to switch out a moderator because somebody gets sick at home or whatever. That is kind of what I write about, rolling with uncertainty and keeping spirits up. I guess I’m on theme.

Zibby: Yes, you’re on brand. It’s perfect. For those who are not familiar with you, I just wanted to excerpt this New York Times glowing glow-fest which I read in the actual paper yesterday. Had I known you didn’t have a copy, I would’ve saved it and mailed it to you or whatever. I was like, I don’t know that I’ve read a better review than this. This is amazing.

Mary Laura: It feels like a miracle. I still sort of feel like, did I dream it? Judith Warner, my new hero. Thank you.

Zibby: She’s awesome. She was on this podcast, by the way, and is amazing. Just at the end of this review, she says, “I want to say something negative about this book. To be this positive is, I fear, to sound like a nitwit.” Then she finds some random thing. She said, “The story’s still being written, and that’s all right. The only problem is having to wait to read what comes next.” Basically, the whole article is just one big glowing thing. It’s just amazing. Bravo to you. Thank you to Judith Warner for reviving the idea of pure positivity.

Mary Laura: It feels like the best luck in the world that it landed in her hands. I’m grateful to whoever assigned that, for sure.

Zibby: Also, did you see Margaret Renkl’s piece that you were also quoted in? which is nice.

Mary Laura: Yes.

Zibby: Are you friends in Nashville?

Mary Laura: We are. We are friends and neighbors. We write together, so she knows this book. She has known this book since its tiny, tiny infancy.

Zibby: Okay, I’ve jumped in too fast. For people who don’t know what your book is even about, aside from the subtitle, can you give your elevator pitch?

Mary Laura: Bomb Shelter is a memoir. It’s one of those slice-of-life memoirs where you get a chunk of time from someone’s life. It’s a two-year period in my life where a lot of things that had been stable for a long time were beginning to destabilize. This was something I was starting to write about a lot anyway a few years ago, things like, I’ve always sort of felt like my parents take care of me, but suddenly, we’re getting to that time where I’m taking care of them, which is strange. My children are really not children anymore. They’re teenagers. They’re getting close to leaving the nest. Everything that I took for granted about how my own human self worked doesn’t work that way anymore because guess what? I’m middle-aged, and everything is changing. I was beginning to write about the process of letting go and how you hang on to who you are, and the positive parts of who you are when some of that letting go feels really daunting, when something happened that kicked that entire theme into a different gear, which was that one morning when my son, the oldest of my two teenagers, was in tenth grade, my husband and I woke up to this sound that we — I thought it was somebody knocking down our front door. It was, bang, bang, bang.

It turned out to be the sound of his body hitting the bathroom floor. He had gotten up to get a glass of water at four AM and just dropped cold, hit the title. He was having a seizure, we found out. At the beginning of Bomb Shelter, I tell the story of that morning, of finding him, calling 9/11, this long day we spent in the hospital, at the end of which we find out he has epilepsy. This is not a book about my son. It’s not a book about his epilepsy journey. That’s a book he’ll have to write one day if he wants to. This is very firmly anchored in my perspective as a woman and a mother and a human being who is trapped in a mortal body and loves other human beings who are trapped in mortal bodies. Suddenly, I’m having to really reckon with that heavy change in my life or that heavy understanding in my life and try to find my way back to what is normally my optimism and my sense of humor. I write in this book about how I’m an anxious optimist, which I think sounds like an oxymoron but is actually a pretty common phenomenon. Long answer to your question, but that’s what Bomb Shelter is about.

Zibby: That’s amazing. For everyone who read your first book, which you were on this podcast about and which was amazing, called I Miss You When I Blink, you had this passage. I don’t know if this is even — it is my original. How do you like that? I had all these copies of your book all over my apartment. You had this passage which still gives me goosebumps, when you realize — can I read this on page fifty?

Mary Laura: Yeah, please do.

Zibby: When you realize that not only does your son have epilepsy, but that he may have had it all along and that part of it could be that when he blinks, he’s almost having a seizure that — he’s almost unconscious, but you can’t really tell. I didn’t explain that very well. Maybe I should just read it. “Oh, and there’s another fascinating type of seizure called an absence seizure. Out loud, you pronounce it the French way, ab-san, but when I see it in writing, I hear it in my head as the English word absence, as in being absent, which makes perfect sense to me because the way this seizure works, the person is there, but they’re not there. In an absent seizure, a person has a brief lapse in consciousness. They might be sitting in class or having a conversation, and then all of a sudden, they’re staring off into space or blinking. Their teachers may describe them as having difficulty concentrating or spacing out. Kids who have this kind of seizure often go undiagnosed for years. If a kid like that spaced out at the dinner table and his blinks were long enough that he appeared to be sitting there with his eyes closed, a parent might think the kid is just having wacky table manners. A parent might spend a decade wondering what her six-year-old meant when he told her, ‘I miss you when I blink.’ A parent might realize then after ten years that when he blinked, he was absent. A parent might finally understand that whether he fully knew it or not at the time, her child had been trying to tell her something very important. She might wonder, should I have known?”

Mary Laura: That “Should I have known?” comes up so much in this book because I’m somebody who likes to imagine that I have control over things and that the more I know, if I just research everything and I understand everything and I fill up my little brain with that, I’ll be able to control the outcome of everything. Then no one will have any unpleasant surprises. It’ll all be great. That is one example of a time where I was just pouring over the past and going, was there a sign I missed? What did I not know to look for that if I had looked for, I could’ve spotted it? Then somehow, I could’ve prevented pain and suffering on the part of my loved ones. That’s a crazy-making cycle to put yourself in. Part of what I’m doing in Bomb Shelter is trying to get myself out of that cycle because I really, especially after this happened with my son, but there were other things as well, I really got into a tight little whirlpool of this, oh, no, what did I not control? How did I let all these things happen? which is a nutty thing to say. How did I let it happen? As if I am the big puppet master in the sky controlling what happens in the world.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s just beyond moving. That’s one of the most memorable passages of a book, ever, I feel like. It gives me such goosebumps. When you were here with Leigh Newman who was talking about her book, Nobody Gets Out Alive, the two of you had this amazing conversation about craft and how you wrote. One of the things you said that’s really stuck with me is about how people feel like they know you and that actually, you’re a private person and that, you know what? You had thirty-eight chapters or thirty-nine chapters. That’s thirty-eight stories that you chose to tell. That’s not a life. Tell me about that curation and the illusion, almost, that you’re sharing everything and yet you’re being very intentional about what you’re sharing.

Mary Laura: What I wanted to do with Bomb Shelter — I was probably trying to do this with I Miss You When I Blink too, but I wasn’t conscious of it. I was really trying with Bomb Shelter to deliver a book that would engage and entertain on the same level as the most engaging novel or TV show or movie or any other piece of entertainment that you engage with. I think sometimes there’s an assumption that memoir isn’t really craft. Memoir is your diary. You just print it, and off it goes. You know this. You’ve been writing personal nonfiction. When it is done well, you apply all the tools and tips of the trade that any storytelling showrunner would use. It also means that when it’s done well, you have connected with the reader in a way that makes them feel they are right there in your brain, in the moment. Ideally, you do want them to come away going, oh, my gosh, I know that character so well. When it’s memoir and it’s a me character, based on me, they think they know me so well. I go out on tour or just out in the world, and people are like, I feel like you’re my best friend. I know everything about you. I don’t want to burst the bubble. At the same time, I’m like, you know thirty-two things about me. The vast majority of my life is lived outside these pages. I’m very protective of my own privacy and of my loved ones’ privacy. It’s kind of, in my mind, a funny little disconnect. I love that people do feel like they know me really well. That means that they feel like they know that me character well, which hopefully means I’ve done the job.

Zibby: Wow, I love it. Talk about your sentence diagraming.

Mary Laura: In school, did you once diagram your —

Zibby: — Yes, I had that too.

Mary Laura: Oh, my gosh, I loved it. The first time I learned, “The subject goes here. The verb goes here. Then you put a line, and there’s the adverb,” that, to me, unlocked this whole visual way of thinking about language. I loved it. I’ve always loved taking apart language and actually spatially mapping it out on a piece of paper. When I was with you in your apartment a couple weeks ago, we were talking about when I was first transitioning out of what I used to do for a living, which was speechwriting and ghostwriting and writing op-eds and things like that in the voices of other people and under other people’s bylines, into writing in my own voice, writing personal essay, I studied how other people write personal essays. I vividly remember trying to diagram David Sedaris essays because his are different. He does what feels very natural to me and what feels very comfortable to my brain, which is that he takes a lot of digressions. I knew, when I write, I’m going to sort of follow the way my brain works, and there will be digressions that might make you wonder at first, where is she going here? I will bring them back. I promise there will be payoff. There will be reward. I wanted to see how he did it. Mapping out a David Sedaris essay, it creates this very funny little zigzag shape that looks like chaos. When you map him again and again and again, you can see there’s wisdom to it. There’s a plan. He knows what he’s doing. That, to me, was very comforting, to be like, I am getting this overall effect from reading his essays where I laugh. I gasp. I have this whole full emotional experience. He’s doing something very carefully and very on purpose. I still do that when I read sometimes. I’ll take apart a story and go, okay, how did they do this? It’s fun. I love it. Nerdy fun.

Zibby: Do you think that authors, when they’re writing those pieces, are aware? Do you think it happens unconsciously? Do you think other people like you are thinking about their language as building blocks? I know you had also talked about your love of Legos in some way or how you think of things as Legos. I’m convinced you are a complete spatial — you probably parallel park really well.

Mary Laura: No, Zibby.

Zibby: No?

Mary Laura: I failed my driving test because I couldn’t parallel park.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m wrong. I thought it was just me. I failed my driving test twice.

Mary Laura: Awesome.

Zibby: I feel like the way you think about things is much more spatially, linearly taken apart. I just assumed it would have practical pluses, but no.

Mary Laura: My spatial awareness inside my mental headspace is much better than my spatial awareness in the actual world. In the actual world, I walk into doors. I can’t parallel park. I drop things. It’s a mess. In my mind, my mental headspace, you’re right, it’s very spatial. You’re making me realize I’ve never really put this together before. I wrote my thesis, way back ninety billion years ago, about Sylvia Plath’s poetry and psychological space and how she builds space in her poems, beehives and rooms and doors and hallways and all that sort of stuff. I think I’ve always been drawn to psychological space. I can’t speak for any other writers, but I am assuming that if you’ve done well, if you’ve gotten to where you’re very good at the craft of writing, there’s got to be a really granular attention to every little thing, the words, the order, the sentences. Maybe people don’t draw things out like I do on a piece of paper to see what shape they are. Maybe that might be a little looney. I think everybody’s got their own way that they’ve worked out in their head for how they organize thoughts and words and things.

Zibby: I thought for a while that to identify future writers you could just find the most anxious child in a classroom.

Mary Laura: You might not be so wrong.

Zibby: Who loves to read. The child who’s anxious but loves to read. I feel like I should go and scatter little cards. Call me in twenty years. Call me. Another one, I do think there’s usually this pull between being so inside your brain and always analyzing things and observing and whatever and then this complete lack of awareness in the real world, physical space, like what you were saying. My theory of you is disproved. Maybe it’s all to justify the fact that I’m constantly walking into people. My husband has to take me by the shoulders in airports so I’m not walking into everybody.

Mary Laura: I remember pre-COVID, the days of actually shopping in stores, I was always apologizing to mannequins that I would think were people. I would walk up and, oh, sorry. Wait, you’re not real.

Zibby: For those listening, if you have walked into someone else lately, you might be a writer.

Mary Laura: You’re just very busy in your interior. You’ve got things going on on the inside. It’s fine.

Zibby: You have been around people lately who have been reading your book and giving you feedback. You just were at the LA Times book festival. You’ve been out in the world touring. What does this feel like? What does it feel like, aside from people feeling that they know you, to interact with the people who, essentially, you’re writing it for? Some of this feels like you’re writing it almost for you. You’re making sense of time that was very stressful. It wasn’t just about the epilepsy, obviously. It goes far, far, far beyond that. Your parents, there’s so much in this book. When you come face to face with someone who takes just that information and talks to you about it, how does that feel? How are you feeling about that? Has there been a conversation that you’re like, this is why I did this?

Mary Laura: It’s been a huge relief. There’s this — I know you know this feeling — this hope where when you are building the book, you are hoping that it makes sense outside your own head and that other people will read it and go, oh, yes, this is what I wanted to read. When you write a memoir in essays like this, which like you said, is not just about one thing, it’s about a lot of things that do ultimately come together, my hope, of course, is that people are going to want to read it and then read it and feel glad that they did. One of the things that people have been saying — I’ve heard it now more than once. I’m really clinging to it because I love it. Oh, this is the book I didn’t know I needed to read. You might not walk into a bookstore and go, you know what I need? I need a memoir by a person who hasn’t done anything really that remarkable. It’s about a million different things. Maybe it’s got a turtle on the cover. No one comes into a bookstore describing this exact book.

I think many people out there, at least what I’m seeing is that many people out there are in a state where they too have had something that has turned their world upside down. They’ve been recently through some kind of phase of life where stability got destabilized. They too are trying to find a way back to feeling good and feeling like themselves. They want to have this full cathartic experience where they can have a good cry and then have a bunch of really good laughs and get to the end and go, okay, I feel good. I may not, as just one little individual, be able to fix everything that’s wrong in the world, but the things I am doing in my everyday life do matter. That’s where I land in Bomb Shelter. What I do matters. I find meaning in this everyday existence that I have. I think a lot of people are looking for that meaning. The more I hear from people who are validating that and kind of saying that all back to me, I feel hugely relieved. I feel like, okay, maybe I actually did it.

Zibby: Have there been books for you that you felt like you didn’t know you needed and then you read it and you were like, oh, thank god?

Mary Laura: All the time. My favorite feeling in reading a book or watching a movie or whatever is pleasant surprise, when I go into something and I’m like, eh, I’m probably not going to like this, and then I love it. I remember during the height of the pandemic when we were home all the time, my family watched more TV than in all the years of my life prior to that combined. We’re just not a big TV family, but we have become a big TV family. I’ve never watched superhero movies. They’ve never appealed to me. There’s a lot of explosions and stuff. That sort of hurts my eyes. I’m always like, I can’t watch those. We watched WandaVision. Have you seen this?

Zibby: I have not.

Mary Laura: I’m telling you, go watch WandaVision. I went into it with the lowest expectations. My kids are like, “It’s Marvel. It’s the universe.” I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what any of this means.” It’s seven or eight episodes. They’re almost like mini movies about — here’s where you’re going to know that I don’t watch these movies because I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s Wanda. She’s this character. I think she’s also a witch. She has powers. Anyway, it is about love and family and getting through grief and the magical thinking that we do in our minds when we want to be able to control the outcome of everything, but we can’t. Three or four episodes into this little eight-show arc — we were watching it as it was released each week along with the rest of the world, so I was also following along on Twitter as people were tweeting about it.

People were going, what is this show about? This is so strange. My kids were like, “What is this about?” I was sitting on the sofa going, I get it. It is about motherhood. It is about love. It is about control. I had that pleasant surprise feeling of thinking, I thought I wasn’t going to get this at all. Then I loved it. I try to be open-minded in my reading, in my consumption of all sorts of entertainment because there is so much that you don’t know you need. The whole memoir genre, the everyday-life memoirs, to me, are always that way. I feel pretty confident that if I walk over to the wall of the bookstore where the biographies of non-celebrity people live, I can pull almost anything down off that shelf and feel pleasantly surprised by it in the end. If it’s by someone who’s a good writer, they will have found some universal feeling that is familiar and gives me relief and makes me feel less lonely when I read it. I love to be pleasantly surprised. It’s fun.

Zibby: I completely agree about that section. I love memoir. Yours is a perfect example of this. People getting through anything, people just getting through life, that’s all we do. We all have that in common. There’s nothing more we have in common than trying to get through life. There you go. It doesn’t always mean that there has to be something major. It doesn’t have to be a memoir about being in the middle of — it’s not one of these extreme situations. For the most of us, although everyone’s had their share of stuff, most of the time, you’re living a pretty non — you know what I mean.

Mary Laura: I totally do, yeah. I’m happy to read a memoir by someone who escaped being kidnapped by pirates. That sounds very interesting. If that book about escaping pirate kidnapping is any good, what that writer will have done is tapped into something universal that makes me identify with that kidnapped person on a pirate ship. That universal thing they’re tapping into, we can also tap into in any story about anything, even the most mundane daily existence which, on a plot level, maybe matches more up with the way most of us live.

Zibby: Very true. I love it. Amazing. What are you going to work on next?

Mary Laura: Oh, man, I got to figure that out. I don’t know. I have such envy of all my friends who have this rhythm where they finish a book, turn it in. While the editor has that book, they start their next book. I stay so in the headspace of the full book lifecycle, so I’m very much still in Bomb Shelter world because I’m on tour right now for Bomb Shelter. My hunch would be that once the travel slows down and I’m back home and I’m back in the place where I can do all my thinking, which is sitting on my back porch staring off into the trees, something will bubble up, but I have no idea what. For me, this is always a scary part of the lifecycle because I’m like, what if that was it? What if that was my last good idea? I have nothing left. I vividly remember that when I got home from my Miss You When I Blink tour, going, well, it’s been a good run. I hope everyone enjoys my one and only book. Then sure enough, days later, this book started coming to life. I’m hoping that that lifecycle regenerates.

Zibby: I’m not worried.

Mary Laura: Thank you.

Zibby: Last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Mary Laura: Oh, gosh. Yes. Write, write, write every single day if you can. If your life does not support an every-day writing habit, that’s fine. Write when you can. Read like crazy. Read with a pencil in your hand so that you can take notes on what other writers do well, what you think other writers don’t do well, and what you want to avoid in your own writing. Underline sentences you love. Read sentences that you love out loud so your ears can learn that melody and learn that rhythm so that then when you’re writing, you can find your way to your own melody and rhythm. Just hang in there. I think we talked about this when I was visiting you a couple weeks ago. You are in your writing career even when you are in the part before you have a contract and before you are making money and before you are known as an author. The writing career doesn’t begin when your book comes out. Your writing career begins when you start writing. Even if no one else takes you seriously or believes that you are a writer or believes that you are an author, if you believe it and you work at it as if it is your job, that’s how you keep going.

Zibby: I love that. When I was at home with my kids for years and years and years, in my head, I was joking that I should answer, I’m a non-practicing writer. All these non-practicing lawyers get to say that. What the heck?

Mary Laura: Exactly, except that you actually probably were a practicing writer. If I know you, you were probably applying those writing chops to everything. Emailing the weekly playground, that’s probably a really good email.

Zibby: I’ll have to go back in. Different name, different email address. What did I have in there? Mary Laura, congratulations on the success of Bomb Shelter, which I’m completely not surprised about. I can’t wait to read what bubbles up next for you. In the meantime, I hope you get through this tour without any more major incidents but hanging on all the positivity that’s come and all the good news, which is so well-deserved.

Mary Laura: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks so much.

Mary Laura Philpott, BOMB SHELTER

BOMB SHELTER by Mary Laura Philpott

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