It was an absolute honor and delight to speak with Mary-Louise Parker, an amazing actress, woman and a memorable and talented writer. The interview lasted two, wonderful hours, transforming itself into more of a conversation between two literary friends than a simple Q&A. It was difficult to pick and choose what to include in the final product of this interview; Mary-Louise has eye-opening insight into an endless number of topics. The original, shortened version for Pittsburgh City Paper is available to read here, but the full length version can be found below.
A Conversation with Mary-Louise Parker
“I wanted to put something out there that informed me or haunted me.”
By Danielle Levsky
Mary-Louise Parker’s critically acclaimed debut book, Dear Mr. You (Scribner), is a collection of (fictional and nonfictional) letters to the men in her life — relatives, mentors, lovers and more — in which the actress (Weeds) explores a variety of literary styles. In advance of her July 27 visit to Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures (in conversation with WESA’s Josh Raulerson), she spoke with City Paper by phone.
Artists are often questioned when they try a new medium. Did you get any such feedback?
I wrote for Esquire until David Granger left but I didn’t talk about it a lot. One time, a very close friend of mine said they had seen one of my pieces and asked who wrote it for me. Another friend of mine gave me a backhanded compliment around the time that I sold “Dear Mr. You.” I stopped talking about it. I understand why they say those things and where that comes from, but I didn’t want it to inhibit my confidence when I was writing. I see a lot of, say, writers who act, who are embarrassed to bring it up. People think they can identify and classify other people.
I admire Viggo Peter Mortensen Jr., an actor but also a poet, free of suspicion. I wonder if he was a woman if he would be a little more suspicious. Why can’t I just write to write? If I was going to write the book everyone expected me to write, there would have been things in them that I found salacious. Why would I want to write that book in this world? I wanted to put something out there that informed me or haunted me. I want to be careful what I put in the world, so in this one, there are heroic, everyday men doing this or doing that. I have a son and I want him to read about these kind of men. As a woman, though, if you speak with any sort of clarity or passion, you’re basically yelling, you’re screaming. You just have to temper everything so much. I’m not very good at that. I feel like I let people walk all over me sometimes.
Reading these letters, I didn’t feel like you were being walked on. It’s like you’re taking ownership for each relationship.
I wanted these letters to be about the people. I don’t want to sound trite but for instance, in “Dear Cerberus,” I was so thankful that I got to the point with it where I was able to hang up the phone, not call back, not see if they had called me or went back for more after I was so mistreated. I can have a more intelligent conversation with my daughter, my son and myself, a more honest one.
In deciding to write “Dear Cerberus” with a mythical creature and in that fairytale-like style, I made myself this perfect little heroine protagonist and made him a monster. I took it to cartoon levels so it wouldn’t be something that was asking for sympathy.
That’s the beauty of fairy tales, isn’t it? It’s why we tell them to children and ourselves. In letters like “Dear Cerberus,” it can make things so much clearer when you can simplify a situation and not overcrowd it with the inevitable complexities that exist within people, emotions, etc. It’s easier to process.
I think you’re right about fairytales. Making him the monster made it simpler, polarizing. We tell children that so they can identify what is a bad guy. Sometimes people are bad guys. It doesn’t mean they will always be that way but in that situation they are.
In terms of style, what propelled your decisions, i.e. using quotations over quotes in some letters but not in others, use of italics or different fonts/bolded statements, like in “Dear Miss Girl”?
I drove the editors crazy. What I write is such a product of my thinking, especially in terms of metaphor. I speak in terms of metaphor and I’m always connecting things. I’m a big daydreamer, my mind wandering around words. Someone once said to me that they didn’t understand poetry and I wanted to help them with that. People don’t necessarily try to figure it out; you should try to have it wash over you like a song.
While the memories were personal, it seemed easy for readers to be able to project their own memories and thoughts into each letter. Was that intentional?
I’m glad you say that. I want the reader to be able to project and inspire. They can go over the topography of experience with the person they think of. There’s so much forgotten sweetness. You get back into the minutia of the actual experience, finding little things in the sand. It’s surprising when you go back for the second whirl.
You talk about religion a lot through your letters. Was religion meant to function as a recipient of these letters, too?
I think when I started going into these people, I thought about who I wanted to pay tribute to and what moments. The things that I ultimately came up were things that have the spiritual within them, or maybe that is spirituality itself. They were inextinguishable moments. I realize that we don’t know anything, we’re just a mass of unanswerable questions. Sherman Alexie had a similar reaction, saying that it felt like searching for some kind of savior and maybe these people were looking for God, too.
What do you think this would have looked like if it was a collection of letters to the women in your life?
I think it would have been very hard to do. I’m writing a lot of female-centric work right now and I have a hard time putting it together. I might just give myself a break and get through it and turn it into something else. “Dear Mr. You” became easier to write when I stopped over complicating it. I thought to myself: “this is a book of letters to men! I need a plan! An exoplanet!” My editor kept pulling me back down to earth. Once I decided that this would be letters to men that were inspirational, haunting, once I decided I wanted it to be positive and not finger-wagging, I felt like I gained a sort of freedom. The structure gave it freedom, too; without it, it would be heavy. I like that the book has a certain amount of levity to it. If I were to write it in a similar form, I could write to women. Then I could take it as many places as I want.
7 p.m. Wed., July 27. Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $21. pittsburghlectures.org