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Buy one of the following Anne Lamott books from amazon.com:

'Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year' (1994)

'Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith' (2000)

'Blue Shoe' (2003)


Am I 'Blue'?: Anne Lamott says 'Blue Shoe' isn't autobiographical, but she did work in many pieces of her own life.

'Shoe' Fits

Real life and writing craft come together in Anne Lamott's 'Blue Shoe'

By Jessica Neuman Beck

Anne Lamott needs to write my memoirs. I'd do it myself, but the character of me wouldn't come out nearly as well.

Lamott has a talent for taking the mishmash of good, bad and ugly that makes up the human spirit and portraying it with such bald kindness that you can't help but feel an instant affection for her characters.

Her latest novel, Blue Shoe (Riverhead Books, 336 pages, $14 paper), is the story of one such beautifully flawed person. Mattie has just gone through a divorce and has moved into her childhood home with her two small children.

"The leaves of the delicate Japanese maple between Mattie's window and the wobbly fence were still green, but elsewhere in the garden were russets and butterscotch-oranges, other trees giddy with color, almost garish, like gypsy dresses. When she strained to listen, she could almost imagine them saying, We gave you shade, and now we'll give you a little kick-ass beauty before we die."

Mattie isn't the sympathetic single mom character from sitcom-land we all know and love. She's angry a lot. She sleeps with her ex-husband, even though she knows it's not good for either of them. She thinks really unpleasant things about her mother.

Clearly, writing about the disagreeable side of human nature isn't something Lamott is afraid of.

"I'm trying to create characters that begin their lives inside of me and probably are some part of me, if not a really obvious part of me like Mattie," Lamott says. "I just try to create them to be as real and true as possible, and to be real and true means to have lots of shadow and lots of really unpleasant tendencies. That means being a little infantile or narcissistic or controlling, and yet to be so cherished and loving also, like Mattie is."

Just like they say in the dream-interpretation books, the house where Mattie lives is symbolic of her emotional state. Moving back as an adult into the place where she grew up, Mattie finds herself overwhelmed not only by memories, but also by unexpected damage and neglect.

Also, there are rats.

"It was actually based on this house that we moved into that looked great on the outside, but turned out to have endless rot and ruin," she says. "I started getting people to help me to do things, like to take off the walnut paneling downstairs, and pull back old carpets. I was experiencing such pain and fear about how ruined the floors would be under the carpet, or how there wasn't any insulation. It was a very rich vein of feeling for me."

Anne Lamott is most famous for her nonfiction works. She's a regular contributor to Salon.com, and some of the anecdotes in Blue Shoe are lifted directly from those columns. A recovered alcoholic, Lamott credits her religion for giving her perspective.

"My most popular book so far has been the book that is on spirituality, Traveling Mercies. All the last few books have been bestsellers, and yet everything I've written since I got sober, beginning with All New People, has been very grounded in spirituality," she says.

Lamott's curious blend of black humor and deeply rooted spirituality is refreshing. "I don't think that I ever sound particularly pious," she says, "but my life is so much about spiritual themes of restoration and of my own being and service to others. My specific path is Christianity, and I don't ever try to convert anybody, but I try to encourage people to devote themselves to the truth of their spiritual identity."

Raised by devoutly atheist parents who viewed organized religion with disdain, Lamott was at first hesitant about expressing her beliefs.

"There's a lot in Traveling Mercies about my father's upbringing in Japan where he was raised by missionaries, so he just hated Christians the most. Of all the things I was going to try not to be, the main thing was not to be a Christian. I tried a lot of different paths, but even as a child I gravitated toward kids who were Catholic or Jewish or whatever because I loved going to church with them."

Little by little, Lamott says, she found her own way.

"I took what I liked, and I always prayed, and I read a lot of stuff about soul and spirit and religion. I was very much affected by Ram Dass' books in my early 20s and that sort of gave me permission to not have to go along with any god that existed, but rather to find my own way through prayer and meditation and reading and studying," she says.

The death of Lamott's father, and her mother's eventual slide into dementia, ended up being Anne's inspiration to write Blue Shoe.

"My own mother had had Alzheimer's. My generation is really experiencing it en masse. On the one hand, I had thought about writing sort of an Operating Instructions for grownup children with parents whose minds are dissolving, but then I really really wanted to write this all as fiction."

In Blue Shoe, Mattie's mother, Isa, starts showing signs of mental decline at a time when Mattie feels ill-equipped to deal with it.

"Isa is a completely different kind of personality and build than my mother was, but her mental decline is very much like my mother's. For the last few years she was OK, and then not, and then finally there was nothing left to do," she says. "It's just sad, it's a sad business."

Lamott's family may have had a similar background to Mattie's, but she emphasizes that Blue Shoe is not autobiographical.

"Oh, sure, our family had the same secrets that most families do, or at least that most families we were friendly with did. There was a lot of infidelity, alcoholism, a lot of problems in the marriage that you wouldn't have guessed at if you were just meeting the people for the first time."

Born in 1954, Lamott was still young when the social shake-up of the '60s began.

"There was so much turmoil and experimentation and men leaving their homes," she says. "That's really when people started getting divorced and wanting young, new marriages. People were starting to get stoned and experimenting in every way. The families I knew in west Marin were all sort of caught up in that, and the children, most often the daughters, tended to be the secret keepers."

As a mother, Lamott deals with things in a much more straightforward way.

"I've been in recovery and therapy and healing and health for so long that it's definitely a hundred times different [for my son and me]. But at the same time you screw up right and left, and perpetrate some of the old habits," she says. "It's hard having a little kid, and it's hard being on your own, and it's hard in another way to be married and having kids, and it's hard to have teenagers. But it's definitely way, way healthier than my mother was with us."

Anne Lamott is currently touring around the country in support of 'Blue Shoe.' She lives in Northern California.

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From the September 10-17, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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