Didion, Turtles, and Midlife Musings: An Interview with Mary Laura Philpott

In the simplest terms, to read a Mary Laura Philpott essay is to feel seen. She has an uncanny ability to transform the feelings you can’t quite articulate, the ones just far enough out of reach to put your finger on, into a captivating and comforting portrait of life, with a healthy dose of humor to boot! Her upcoming book, Bomb Shelter, is a memoir-in-essays about a particularly trying period of life for this “anxious optimist,” a time when she struggled with vexing questions such as: How do we reconcile our protective instincts with reality? How do we find meaning and joy in our everyday lives when so little is within our control? And why the heck would a turtle keep knocking on the front door? Musing editor Sarah Arnold caught up with Mary Laura (the founding editor of Musing!) via email in advance of Bomb Shelter‘s release.

Sarah Arnold: First of all, congratulations! I Miss You When I Blink was such a fantastic debut, and I loved Bomb Shelter just as much (even more?). Was the writing process different this time around? Did you feel more confident?

Mary Laura Philpott: Thank you! It was somewhat different, yes. I mean, on a day-to-day level, it looked the same: sitting in front of a screen, drafting, deleting, revising. But with I Miss You When I Blink, the themes and larger story arc became clear only as I was going along. With Bomb Shelter, I knew the story I wanted to tell from the outset. I had more of a big-picture map in my head in terms of where it would begin, where it would end, and what questions I was going to grapple with along the way.

Mary Laura Philpott

SA: What will readers learn about you in Bomb Shelter that they didn’t in IMYWIB?

MLP: This story finds the me-character in a different phase of living. Blink was mostly set in my 30s and Bomb Shelter is anchored in my mid-forties, so there’s almost a decade of difference in terms of life territory. So I suppose readers are seeing that me-character deal with new things: midlife, letting go as children leave the nest, facing the reality of aging not only in my parents but also in my own human body, and also just reckoning with what our world looks and feels like these days.

(I know this “me-character” term I’m using here is weird, by the way. I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about me, the author, and “me,” the person in the book, in a way that’s not confusing. I, the writer, am a real person living right now, the show-runner crafting this story. The me-character exists within the world of that story, so she’s a little different in the mind of each reader — made up of the little bits of my real life I’ve told in these pages, plus the life experiences and assumptions readers bring to flesh her out as a person in their heads. You know what I mean?)

What interests me even more is what readers will learn about themselves or think about differently in their own lives after this reading experience. On the surface, it’s a book about my life, but on another level it’s also a book about being a person, a larger story about how we keep going and finding not only meaning but hope and joy and even humor as the world keeps tossing surprises into our paths.

SA: I understand that Bomb Shelter isnt really a sequel,” but you do reward readers who were with you for I Miss You When I Blink with some familiar references. Theres a piece in Bomb Shelter that includes a powerful callback to that prior title. When I first read it, I had to take a few minutes to let it sink in before continuing to read!

MLP: Believe me, I had to take a few minutes to process it when it happened, too. I was sitting on our sofa with my husband, John, one night and it suddenly clicked in my head what that “I miss you when I blink” phrase might have actually meant all those years ago, and I was like, “OH MY GOD.” It still gives me chills.

SA: You tackle themes of anxiety, loss, and change in such a vulnerable way, yet you manage to be laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. The number of times I wrote “LOL” in the margins of the manuscript is pretty high for such an emotional book. What role does humor play for you when you’re writing about difficult topics?

MLP: I love that you wrote in the margins! In my reading life, I tend to alternate a heavy book with a lighter book and kind of mix up the laughter and tears that way, but my very favorite reading experience is the kind where one book lights up the whole emotional circuit board and blends light and dark together. That’s what I’m going for in my writing and what comes most naturally to me. My worldview reflects that mix: Life is so funny. Life is so sad. Life is so amazing. All those things are true. The absurd and the profound are all tangled up together.

I interviewed Nick Hornby once and asked a similar question. He said he can’t write “300 pages of no funny,” even if it’s 300 pages of a relatively serious story, because, to him, there’s no stretch of life that’s utterly humorless. Even dark humor is humor. It’s true.

SA: We have to talk about Frank. Would you tell everyone the story of how the cover of your book came to be?

MLP: Frank is the wild Eastern box turtle who lives in my yard. As far as I know, he has lived there his whole life — turtles never voluntarily leave the territory where they were born — and he might be older than me. We see him every spring, summer, and fall, and then in winter, he goes under the leaves and hides. I first shared a couple of Frank stories in the New York Times (including the story of how he used to knock on our front door!), and that’s how Frank came to have a bit of a following; but I left things out of those essays then, other details from my life at the time that I can include now in Bomb Shelter. Although Frank has just a couple of cameos in the book, his appearances are meaningful, and I really wanted him to be on the cover. Thank goodness he came out of hibernation just in time for the cover shoot. Otherwise we would have had to use a non-Frank turtle model, and it just wouldn’t have been the same.

Frank is photographed by Mary Laura in her backyard

SA: So much of this book is about being a parent and the challenges and triumphs that come with it. I, a 23-year-old, very much childless person still found it wonderfully relatable. What do you think it is about Bomb Shelter that makes it so engaging and accessible for folks in all stages of life? Was that a goal you set intentionally?

MLP: Oh, I’m so glad! That reminds me of something Wendy Sheanin, VP of independent retail sales at Simon & Schuster, said when she first read Bomb Shelter: “This is a book for anyone with a beating heart.” I really hoped that would be the case. I mean, that’s what any good book should do –– find some universal chord that resonates with a variety of readers, right? I loved The Martian, but I’m not an astronaut.

SA: You quote the late Joan Didion in the epigraph. Why? And how does Didion inspire your writing?

MLP: I admire Joan Didion’s essays so much, but it was her memoir that was on my mind as I wrote Bomb Shelter. I remember when The Year of Magical Thinking came out, that sentence was on the back cover: “You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends.” In her case, she meant it literally. Her beloved husband John Dunne died at the dinner table. That memoir was all about what the next 12 months felt like for her. But what’s beautiful about the way she worded it is that, as you mentioned earlier, it could be relatable to anyone. “You sit down to dinner” — some mundane, everyday moment — and “life as you know it ends” — a monumental change happens at the same time.

The biggest before-and-after moment in Bomb Shelter, the one that really sets the clock ticking at the beginning, is the morning I found my son unconscious, having a seizure on the bathroom floor. His life didn’t end in that moment, thank God, but my emotional life as I knew it, as a mother and person, did. Bomb Shelter is full of other juxtaposed mundane/monumental moments, as is life generally, I think.

I love Didion’s book for how it dwells so fully in an encapsulated bubble of time, that one year. Even when she’s rewinding time to tell a story from the past or spooling ahead to imagine the future, it’s all through the lens of this strange in-between time. That was one of my goals in Bomb Shelter as well, to capture two years of this in-between, now-what feeling, even as I brought in stories from the past and thoughts about the future. Bomb Shelter is about learning to let go and move forward in an uncertain world, so I needed it to begin and end within that period of uncertainty.

SA: “The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness” is one of my favorite essay-chapters in the book. After the past couple of years, I think we’re all feeling a little more grateful for the ordinary things. How did the pandemic influence the making of this book?

MLP: The beginning of Bomb Shelter is set in the past, and as the book goes on, it catches up to the present tense of when I finished it. When the pandemic started in 2020, I wondered if I could possibly leave it out of the book; it obviously wasn’t part of my original plan. Strangely, it actually worked within the emotional arc of the Bomb Shelter story. Just as my children were getting close to leaving the nest and I was sort of insanely and desperately wishing I could hold onto them and keep them safe forever, along came lockdown and I got my wish: They were back home, around the clock. It gave me a chance to process that extra time with them as a miraculous gift but also as something that never should have happened. As much as I dreaded letting them go, I realized that their going was the more natural order of things. I think it made me more ready to face their nest-leaving.

(That said, because the pandemic comes up toward the end, it takes up minimal space. Bomb Shelter isn’t what I’d call a pandemic book.)

SA: You’re going on tour (and kicking things off here in Nashville)! What has it been like planning a book tour during the pandemic?

MLP: Everyone involved in planning a book tour right now should get a raise. Falon Kirby at Simon & Schuster — along with the rest of the Bomb Squad (that’s what we call this book team) — has gone so far above and beyond in making these plans. And booksellers everywhere have worked so hard to adjust their operations again and again over the past two years. It’s an absolute joy to be headed out to bookstores again!

I’ll be going all over the country in April and beyond, but it all starts here in Nashville with a special preview on Sunday afternoon, April 10*. (The book isn’t officially out until April 12.) It’s totally free to attend, but I’d love folks to consider making a donation of any size to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. I’m so happy that Parnassus is donating a portion of book sales from the event that day, too. That means the world to me, for reasons that will become clear when people read Bomb Shelter. I’m so grateful to Karen and Elyse and RJ and everyone at Parnassus for making this happen.

SA: What is the main thing you hope readers will take away from Bomb Shelter?

MLP: I want people to feel they’ve been given a great story, and to come away with the sense that while they were engaged with that story, they were experiencing some real human connection. Part of what that me-character is going through in Bomb Shelter is panic over realizing that we cannot protect the ones we love forever; but where the book lands is with a sense of peace that there’s so much else we can do. Love is never futile — and there’s cause for joy and laughter all around us. I hope this book leaves people feeling good, like their efforts in this world have meaning.

*Our in-person event with Mary Laura is currently full, but you can register for the waitlist here. (We’d also love for you to consider making a donation to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.) We have two other options for you to celebrate the release of Bomb Shelter!

First, you can join us for a virtual event with Mary Laura in conversation with Kimberly Williams Paisley on Wednesday, April 20 at 7:00pm CDT. Get your tickets here! Second, you can stop by Parnassus on Independent Bookstore Day on April 30th, where Mary Laura will be joining us for a signing line at 11:00am! Come say hi to Mary Laura, shop IBD exclusives, and help us celebrate our 10th Independent Bookstore Day!

As always, you can pre-order a signed or personalized copy of Bomb Shelter to pick up at the store or to be shipped anywhere in the world!

Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives Cover Image