Notes from Ann: Turning the Tables

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(On location at Parnassus for A Word on Words. This new episode premieres Sunday, February 19, at 10:26 a.m. on Nashville Public Television.)

Mary Laura Philpott, the author of Penguins with People Problems, is often interviewing people, and whether she’s doing it on A Word on Wordsthe television series that discusses books, or right here on Musing, Parnassus’s online literary magazine (which, by the way, she created), she’s awfully good at it. So good at it, in fact, that she won an Emmy a couple of weeks ago. When one of your employees wins an Emmy, it’s best to call them into the office to have a little discussion, see what’s going on. For the record, Mary Laura strenuously objected to this interview. That’s because she always likes to be in control. But I still own half this bookstore, so I have some authority. I told her to just sit down and answer questions. – Ann


AP: So you won an Emmy. Susan Lucci was nominated 19 times before she won an Emmy. You won your first time out. Please explain this.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-8-34-48-pmMLP: Clearly, Susan Lucci should have been working with Nashville Public Television. Had she a co-actor, perhaps, like my co-host JT Ellison, or a producer like Linda Wei doing all the genius heavy-lifting, things might have been different.

AP: It’s your first question and you’re already deflecting praise. Seriously, explain the Emmy. Is it heavy? Did you name it? Did it come as a surprise? Most of us don’t have our own Emmys so we want to know.

MLP: It is surprisingly heavy. The wings are very sharp. (I wasn’t sure those were wings, so I looked it up — did you know the thing she’s holding is an atom? Do you think I could claim this as a SCIENCE AWARD?) We haven’t named her, other than “Emmy,” but she has an array of stylish wrap dresses and hats already, thanks to my crafty daughter. So basically she’s being treated like a Barbie or an American Girl Doll right now.

As for whether it was a surprise: yes and no. It felt bizarre to go up and hold it in my hand at the ceremony — like, “Who made the mistake of letting me have this? This is a television award, and I’m a booknerd.” But if you’d told me that the show itself would win, that wouldn’t have astounded me. Great guests, fun conversation, cool Nashville locations, and somehow it all gets edited into these tiny shows you can watch in five minutes on TV or online on your lunch break. I’m not deflecting praise, I swear. I just mean that it will never surprise me for this NPT team to win awards. They should get truckloads of them.

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With Matt Emigh and Linda Wei of NPT (top) and co-host JT Ellison (bottom).

AP: How long have you been doing A Word on Words?

MLP: We shot the pilot episodes the summer of 2015, which enabled us to get our funding — that’s something you have to do in public broadcasting — and then get on the air in the fall of that year. And that’s the “new” A Word on Words, of course, which is a re-imagined version of the show that ran for over 40 years, hosted by John Seigenthaler. You were a guest on that one several times, weren’t you?

AP: I was the longest running guest on the show when John was hosting. It makes me feel old. But this isn’t about me. You seem to be a person who’s incredibly successful at things you hadn’t planned on doing, whether it’s joining a television show (assuming you weren’t the child star of some show I never watched) or drawing a book of penguins. The fact that you hadn’t meant to be on television or illustrate a very successful book is deeply interesting. Anything up ahead that you don’t plan to do but might just shoot the lights out in?

MLP: Oh, that makes me laugh. (Because it’s true — who really lives the life they “planned”?) I don’t know! As for the show, I’m excited for our next round of guests. And I love watching JT’s episodes, because I’m not there for the filming of those, so they’re as much a surprise to me as they are to all the other viewers.

Other than that, I’m plugging along on my other jobs . . . writing about books for the store, writing about other things for other places, doodling animals. I just started a new little cartoon, but I haven’t decided if it’s going to be a limited series or if I’ll keep doing it. It’s called WildLifeCoach, and it’s poorly drawn wild animals giving pep talks. This is what the state of the world has driven me to as a coping mechanism.

AP: I love WildLifeCoach. It’s a great demonstration of how you can do good in the world using the tools you have at hand. You’re sneaking a lot of great advice and calming words out there under the guise of adorable animals. The penguins are self-conscious and hysterical, but these wild animals are more like Zen masters.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-3-50-46-pmMLP: Reading the news or scrolling through Twitter — as much as you know I enjoy Twitter — makes me feel hysterical, indeed. All I’m doing with these little animals is giving myself the pep talk I need to get off the floor and keep going. “Keep going” is my 2017 mantra.

AP: And then I turn around and you have a piece in The New York Times or The Washington Post. There’s absolutely no pigeonholing you. Are you trying out a bunch of different things or is “a bunch of different things” always going to be your M.O.?

MLP: You have me pegged, my friend. I am a workaholic, and I don’t feel good if I’m not making something. So yes, “a bunch of different things” is my sanity strategy. When I get burned out on one thing, I switch to another. Also, there’s no denying the co-existence of the absurd and the profound, so I suppose I can’t help but be drawn to both. I think my favorite creators are the ones who embrace that “bothness.” Like Jenny Offill — she wrote Sparky, a picture book about a sloth, and then she wrote the gorgeously poetic novel Dept. of Speculation. (I’m not comparing myself to Jenny Offill — that would be insane — but you get what I mean. I admire people with multiple creative dimensions.)

AP: I’m one of those All-Eggs-One-Basket people. I admire your range, especially since your range includes a husband, two children, loads of friends, and your job at Parnassus. I am both in awe of the fact that you created Musing and mystified that you continue to do it. It’s sort of like having David Sedaris run your online literary magazine on the side. What does Musing bring to your sense of creative variety?

MLP: Isn’t it great to be alive at the same time as David Sedaris? I can’t wait for his new book. (Fun fact: His interview is still the most popular piece we’ve ever run.) Anyway — Musing indulges the dorky side of me that never wanted to stop writing term papers when I left school, but also my cheerleader side. I get to hold a megaphone to the conversations that happen among readers and writers in this store, which a lot of people otherwise wouldn’t hear. And I really, really love bringing attention to good books and the people who make them. If one of our booksellers reads something and adores it, I want to make sure the world knows about it, so other people can enjoy it too. That’s the rah-rah in me. Selfishly, I also just love doing interviews. I can’t believe I’m allowed to pick the brains of the greatest writers of our time.

AP: We’re incredibly grateful. I sincerely hope you don’t wake up and become wise to the fact that you could be running Google. The shop dogs would have to start writing their own posts. I don’t think they fully realize what a service you’ve done them. Last question: if you did have to pick one thing — and you don’t — what would you do?

MLP: I guess I’d stick with essays, because I write those to make order of my thoughts, and if I couldn’t do that, nothing else would work. But please DON’T MAKE ME PICK. [stuffs iPad and markers into pockets and runs]

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The books Mary Laura’s cheering for these days:

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A Separation by Katie Kitamura – Equal parts intriguing mystery and astute character study (think Heidi Pitlor’s The Daylight Marriage), it’s my favorite literary fiction out this month. Also, if this cover were wallpaper, I would buy 10 rolls of it.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – I was so pleased to meet Roxane at a conference last week that I suddenly forgot whatever I meant to say. So I put my hand on her hand and said, “I just want you to know everyone loves you.” I’m sure she remembers this special moment as having no awkwardness whatsoever.

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith – Kathy at the store is raving so hard about this one that I bought a copy.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin – Every aspiring writer should read this book, and every working writer will relate to it.

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss – I admit to calling this giant book “Tips for Tools” and making fun of my husband when he bought it, but I keep picking it up and flipping to random sections and getting totally into it, so he wins. It’s fascinating.

It’s All Absolutely Fine: Life Is Complicated So I’ve Drawn It Instead by Ruby Elliot – There’s always one hilariously twisted cartoon book in my backpack, and this is the current star.

And holy SMOKES, there are so many good books coming this spring. Just wait!