For seven years, Laurie Notaro tried to sell her collection of humor columns. Publishers, however, did not cooperate. Finally, and not for lack of trying other options, she decided to publish the book herself. In no time at all her print-on-demand paperback caught the attention of the right people at Random House, where she signed a two-book deal.
So there she was, suddenly, on top of the world: a regular columnist for the Arizona Republic, her hometown paper, and now this: New York was paying her to write another book. Then just before The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club arrived in bookstores, the newspaper let her go. Her debut made the New York Times bestseller list a few weeks later. Which just goes to show what anyone knows.
Sometimes you want to lose yourself in an elegant novel. Prescient political tomes will always have their time and place. Further, if you want to learn how to garden, or pay your taxes, or communicate more productively with your peers, Laurie Notaro is not your answer.
"I am a dork" is how the author explains her success.
And her future is bright. Whether she's single and goofing around with friends in Idiot's Girls, settling down into marriage in Autobiography of a Fat Bride, or navigating family and work into her thirties in the new I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies): True Tales of a Loudmouth Girl, her readership can't wait to catch up. "A dork is a dork is a dork," Notaro understands. "You can be seventeen, you can be twenty-seven or thirty-seven, you're still going to fall down and people are going to see your underwear."
Dave: Reading your books, one quickly gets the impression that you're occasionally challenged by public interactions with strangers. How do you get along on a book tour?
Laurie Notaro: It's kind of different. Book tours, they're really fast-paced. You're in a different place every day—and that part of it sucks —but at the end of the day, for me tonight, for example, I get to meet all these people that I've been emailing back and forth with for almost three years. That part is really cool. It's a connection. It's nice. That's the major payoff at the end of the day.
I get to stand up and have fun, and hopefully make people laugh by telling these stories. I like doing that, but the best part is meeting people. The rest can be kind of forgiven as long as you get that massive cookie at the end of the day. It's like a really good dessert.
Dave: When you were writing for the Arizona Republic, you suspected that your material could work in front of a national audience because everyone in Phoenix is from somewhere else. I thought that was an interesting observation.
Notaro: I've lived there for a really long time, so I've watched this happen over the years. People move to Phoenix from all over the country. It's so cheap and we've got a really good employment rate right now. The city is really growing.
Each city has its own way of thinking about things. I figured, If I can do well here, which has people from the east and the west and the south and the north, all over the place...if what I was writing could hit all those people then I might do okay on a bigger level.
Dave: Meanwhile, for years you tried, unsuccessfully, to get The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club published. Finally you just decided to put it out yourself. Eventually you gave up on New York publishers.
Notaro: Not for lack of trying. I tried really hard.
Dave: But it worked out in the end. Random House bought the rights, and the book quickly became a bestseller. You're self-publishing's poster child success story.
Notaro: I'm a poster child, that's true.
Dave: It's such a strange turn of events. Just when Random House was ready to publish the book, the paper got rid of you.
Notaro: I lost my columnist position a couple weeks before my book came out—and they knew the book was going to come out. It came out, and it did what it did—and I didn't expect them to act otherwise, but no one said, "Oh, well, maybe we made a mistake." They had no interest whatsoever.
It was hard for me because at one point I really loved that job. It was great. But there was a regime change, it was under different management, and this just happened.
Dave: Most of the material for Idiot Girls was drawn from the columns you'd written in college, right?
Notaro: The college newspaper, yes.
Dave: How did you come to write about the various things you and your friends were doing?
Notaro: I wanted to be an investigative reporter—that's why I went to journalism school—but I ended up moving more toward features. I became the editor of the State Press magazine, which is like the entertainment insert.
We had a pretty decent humor columnist, but he was also involved in a million other things, always consistently late on his deadline. He got a DUI one night and didn't meet his deadline the next morning. It was too late; I had pulled all my wire; there was nothing else to fill this space with, so I wrote this ridiculous piece. I don't even remember what the first one was, but I wrote something and I ran it. The next week he was late again for some equally ridiculous reason, so I filled that space out, too. The third week when he was late again, I decided, Enough is enough. I've had it. I'm canning you.
The intent was always to find someone else. It wasn't my thing. But then it was much easier for me to just sit down and type out a thousand words about something stupid that had happened that week than it was to find another humor columnist that I would have to pay. I was too busy to go out and find somebody else. I just kept doing it, and it went on from there.
Dave: What did you write at the Republic?
Notaro: The weekly column I did there was my traditional column. It was about my experiences with the outside world, so to speak. It was what these books are. My daily column was more geared toward quirky and weird things in pop culture, current events, stuff like that.
I was writing seven columns a week, and it was hard to come up with something every day. It was a stretch. I'd spend the first part of my day, every single day, culling information, looking at every single web site, trying to find something that I could either poke fun at or criticize, trying to find something funny. It was a good challenge for me. It taught me a lot about the world—I had to read all these newspapers—but I was so burned out and depressed by the time my job ended that I don't even watch the news anymore. I became so disillusioned at the state of things that my brain just got fried. Isn't that pathetic? I'm vastly uninformed now, and I almost prefer it that way.
Dave: You're getting older, your life is changing... Presumably, your audience is getting older with you. Are you conscious of approaching the pieces differently?
Notaro: When I was making the change from Idiot Girls to Fat Bride I was really concerned about being able to bring these readers with me. A lot of these girls are in college, or they're even in high school; they're years away from getting married. But I was hoping that with the general scope —the general scope is that I am just the loser girl, I'm a dork— I was hoping that the basic experiences would be there, they would translate.
I have caught some shit. When Fat Bride was published, one Internet reviewer said, "Oh, she went and she found a guy. The girl in the first book would have never gotten married." And I was like, "How the hell would you know? I'm that girl. I think I ought to know."
Between the first book being written and the second book, almost eight years passed. Things were going to change. Now, I think, through time, the people who related to those core experiences, the way that I'd hoped they would, they've stayed with it. With I Love Everybody, I wasn't concerned with that at all. A dork is a dork is a dork. You can be seventeen, you can be twenty-seven or thirty-seven, you're still going to fall down and people are going to see your underwear. It's the same thing. It's just a little more mortifying when you have wrinkles.
Dave: When you were growing up, what did you think was good comedy?
Notaro: I loved The Pink Panther. And my dad was a huge Woody Allen fan, so when a Woody Allen movie would come to town he would take me to see it with him, or if Take the Money and Run came on TV he would freak out: "Oh, my God! You have to see this movie!"
My dad has a really good sense of humor. My mother is hysterically funny, but she has no idea. She's not trying. She's like a weird TV character that actually is alive in real life.
I think a lot of it comes from my dad. He's kind of skewed. Also, my best friend Jamie's dad—we've been best friends for almost thirty years— her dad is the really weird one. He introduced us to Cheech and Chong and Monty Python at a very early age; Cheech and Chong was later on, but Monty Python was very early. We didn't understand half the stuff that was going on, but we thought coconuts and horses were funny. We became two very weird little girls, as far as humor was concerned, much different from the other people we went to school with.
Dave: Do readers often ask about your friends' lives?
Notaro: People will ask about my nana or my cat. To me, I'm just like, "Why do you care how my cat is? He's dying." But they do care. People sometimes want updates, but for the most part the people I'm in touch with already know what's going on.
Dave: Well, you're in an odd position. Your books are entirely personal. And you have three of them now. Many of your readers probably know a lot more about you—or they feel like they do—than they know about the people in their own lives.
Notaro: See, I don't think about it like that. Even when I was writing for A.S.U.—it's a huge campus, a huge school—if I ever sat down and thought, Forty thousand people are going to read this... That doesn't even translate. I just can't think about it like that. That would really freak me out. I think I'd pull back on a lot of stuff.
In the fourth book, which I just finished on Sunday, there are three stories in there that I swore I would never, ever write about. Enough time has passed now where I'm just like, Okay, that happened five or six years ago. That's not me anymore. I didn't do that yesterday, so it's not as bad. But basically I write the pieces and I don't think that anyone's ever going to read them.
I can't imagine anyone ever reading my books. I don't know if that sounds weird.
The only time it really freaked me out was when Fat Bride came out, and I knew that I was going to get a phone call from my mother. She said, "I can't believe that you slept with that filthy vagrant and you thought he gave you VD! That was the bum that was in my house, right? That was the one?"
I said, "I cannot even talk about this with you. I just can't. I can't. I've never had sex with anyone, Mom, in my entire life."
Dave: That's exactly my point. You're telling people stories that you wouldn't even share with your family.
Notaro: I just send it off. I see the books in stores but I draw the line. To me, it doesn't go any further than that. The books just sit there and no one buys them. That's what I think.
Dave: I know you got hate mail occasionally when you were writing your newspaper column. You're done with that now, I suppose.
Notaro: I don't get hate mail anymore, and that rocks. I got angry letters on a daily basis, but it was also really fun because I could screw with people. I got into it. Not that I'm a genius, but if someone writes me a letter that says, "Dear Laurie, Your witing sucks...." I'm sorry, if you can't even run spell-check or put an r in there, this is going to be fun.
Now all I get is the requisite crappy review from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. That's my hate mail now. Oh, it's Ray from Tuscon going crazy again because he's drunk, taking it out on somebody.
Dave: The new David Sedaris book [Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim] just came out. I'd imagine many people read his stories for some of the same reasons they come to yours. For one thing, small pieces are easier to digest than novels, but beyond that, you want to listen to a familiar voice and you want to laugh.
Notaro: I read a novel when I want to go someplace else, a different point in time or whatever. But with Sedaris's stuff, I laugh because I relate to it. I don't know if absolution is the right word, but I think people get almost a pat on the head, like, "It's okay. Look what he's doing. And he can laugh about it. It's okay that all these things are fucked up in your life. It's okay because you can laugh about these things."
He's great. I just got his book last night, but I'm not going to read it until I'm completely, completely done with my fourth one.
He's a great guy. I actually interviewed him when I worked at the newspaper. I got to talk to Lou, as a matter of fact, his dad.
Dave: What did you take from that experience?
Notaro: He's an incredibly nice guy. I was just some shitty little reporter, but I talked to him three years in a row so he vaguely remembered my name. It wasn't like we were friends, but he would easily give me an hour or an hour and a half just chatting about stuff, no problem. He's really funny and really down to earth and very honest.
I would play little games with him, word association games, trying to think of anything that no one else had ever asked him. Looking back on this, they were stupid, but he completely entertained me. He's a good sport.
Dave: If you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask?
Notaro: I have no idea.
Dave: I would assume that you face some of these questions again and again.
Notaro: They're often the same sometimes. The girl who interviewed me for the Vancouver paper had some really good questions that no one had ever asked me. It was a lot of stuff about women's issues, stuff that's under the surface and you really have to look for it. She caught some of that, which was cool.
Dave: Phoenix was home to another popular humorist, Erma Bombeck. Do you have any favorite anecdotes about her?
Notaro: I never met her, but I used to read her in the paper when I was a little girl. I loved her stuff, though I never aspired to be anything like her. I wanted to be like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Even though I was never going to live on the prairie, I thought if I wore sunbonnets and ice skates with the blades cut off I could somehow assimilate into that kind of life.
In the last couple years, I've met people in Phoenix that knew Erma well, and they've paid me very high compliments as far as she was concerned, saying that I was the Erma Bombeck with the dirty mouth. To me that was really cool.
Dave: What's the best thing about Phoenix?
Notaro: The Mexican food.
Dave: Do you have a favorite Mexican restaurant?
Notaro: I have several. It depends on what you want. Are you going to Phoenix?
Dave: I'll be back at some point. I've been twice for Spring Training.
Notaro: We live kind of in the hood. Downtown. It's not like your downtown. It's probably what your downtown looked like a while ago, but we really live in gangland. All along McDowell is where you need to go. Sixteenth Street and McDowell, anyplace pretty much you go over there is great. Rosita's Place is really good. Adrian's is pretty good too. And Tacos de Juarez is right by the bus station; that one is really good as well, but they don't speak English. A little Spanish will go a long way there.
Dave: Have you ever recorded audio versions of your stories? It struck me as I was reading these pieces that a lot of them would work well on the radio.
Notaro: My poor publicists have tried valiantly to get something going with NPR, but it's never going to work. I'm not NPR stuff.
Dave: Too different in tone?
Notaro: I thought maybe it's because I'm really base and scatological, but then I think, Well, Sedaris is like that, too. Granted, he's Sedaris, and that's a whole different thing, but if that line has been crossed... Who knows? I don't really know what the deal is, but we haven't been able to forge a good relationship.
I'm after my publishers to do an audio book. I'd love to do that. Since Day One I've been wanting to. I think it would do okay, but for some reason my pleas don't get answered.
Dave: It strikes me as a natural fit. Your old readers in Phoenix spend enough time in their cars.
Notaro: I could bring my mother in. She could be herself. I could bring my nana in. It could be beautiful.
Dave: You could have a whole stage show.
Notaro: Exactly. We could take it on the road.
Dave: Any prescription drug smuggling mishaps recently, or have you given that up?
Notaro: I decided I needed to go back to Mexico with someone who knows what they're doing, so that's what I did. I went back with a friend of mine who had had some experience going back and forth.
It was perfectly above board. It wasn't kilos of cocaine or anything. I wasn't a mule or anything like that. You just have to have the experience of going back across the border a couple times. You go down there, you get what you need. I won't eat there, but I'll take their drugs.
Dave: I was driving to work this morning, and I heard Ben Stiller on the Howard Stern show talking about a bad acid trip he had as a teenager. He said that his first instinct was to call his parents. It made me wonder if you and your parents have ever shared such an experience.
Notaro: There's an incident that I touch on briefly in the fourth book. There was this boy that I really liked, and we were at a party. I was fifteen, I think. He was there with another girl. I thought it was my big night with him. Not to be. He was there with the pretty girl. So what does Laurie do? I drank a gallon of screwdrivers—and I had really never been a drinker up until that point. Within two hours, I was asking people, "Why do I feel so weird? You don't really look the same. Everything is kind of slow."
My friend Doug took me home, put me in his bed—because I was totally smashed by ten-thirty, which is simply pathetic, even for a fifteen-year-old. I threw up all over his bed, fell out of his Volkswagen, hit my head on several river rocks, and finally at my curfew—I still had not sobered up by then, naturally—he took me home.
He held me in his arms and helped me to the house. I thought it would be really funny not to knock on the door but to kick it open. So I'm kicking on the door —brilliant, right? My mother opens it, and the first words out of her mouth are, "Oh, my God! She's on LSD." Because of course my mother equates every weird experience with LSD. She's never done it, she doesn't know what it is, so everything has to be LSD. My friend was trying to tell her, "She's just drunk." But there's my mother insisting, "No! She's on LSD. I know LSD when I see LSD, and this one is on LSD."
To this day, my mother swears I was on LSD when I was just fifteen and drunk off my ass.
Dave: I would imagine that there's a lot of fertile ground for satire in being a woman of your age without children.
Notaro: It caught me by surprise, almost. Like I said in I Love Everybody, it wasn't like we sat down and had a meeting, but through passing conversations here or there it was basically understood that none of us were going to have children. We were busy with careers; the thought of it just wasn't for us. We recognized at a good, early age that we weren't good parent material.
Then slowly all those people jumped off the baby cliff. I had four friends who had babies within four months last year. It was like, "Why don't I just get a job at Baby Gap? You people are wiping me out." It was insane.
Some of them I knew were full of shit all along—they were going to have kids—but one of my friends really surprised me, my friend Meg. After she had her baby last year, I went up to visit her. I'd already finished this book, but I was talking to her and her husband, and I said, "I have to tell you guys that I'm really kind of mad at you." They were like, "Why?" I said, "You broke my heart!" It was like losing a boyfriend. I said, "I had planned out our future already, with all these things that we were going to do as childless couples, and you guys totally wrecked it all. You ruined everything."
Now, it's whittled down to me and Jamie and the one gay couple that we know, and even they're talking about having kids.
My mother will tell me, "If you really want to write a good book, Laurie, write one about kids." And I think, If all I'm going to have a kid for is to generate some material, I'll just get a bunch of monkeys. I don't have to pay for a monkey's college education. And no cop is ever going to call me in the middle of the night and say, "Hey, your monkey is smoking pot and drinking in the desert with other underage monkeys."
Dave: But on the other hand there should be no end of material to cull from your friends' parenting experiences if you can just get a camera on them.
Notaro: You know what? I don't need a camera. All I need is a phone because this is what our phone calls are like now: Jeff will call, and he'll say, "Hey, it's me." Then, "Ah, Griffin. Griffin, put that down. Put that down. Don't touch Grace. Don't touch her. I said, 'Don't touch her.' Don't touch the baby! That's it! You're in Time Out. We're going to sit here..."
And then I have to sit there in Time Out with them, and I'm thinking, This is worse than when you used to take us to the dry cleaners on your cell phone.
The whole thing is blown.
Dave: Is there anything to look forward to?
Notaro: I'm getting out of Phoenix, for one thing. That's something to look forward to.
Dave: Have you ever lived outside of Arizona for an extended period of time?
Notaro: Just New York, and that was when I was little.
Phoenix is such a vacuum; it's like a black hole. People try to get out, but they always come back. We're like crabs in a pot trying to get out, then once someone gets out and jumps off the stove, they're like, "Oh! But I knew everybody in the pot! And there's good Mexican food in the pot. And the rent in the pot is really cheap." I'm hoping I can stay out of the pot.
Dave: Good luck.
Notaro: I'm going to need it. I figure if I sever those ties...
Dave: Change your number. Don't give it to your family.
Notaro: They're Italian. They'll find me.
Dave: Any reading recommendations before we stop?
Dave: One last question: Do you have a favorite pair of shoes, and if so, what makes them your favorite?
Notaro: These are my favorite pair. They're Frye harness boots.
I've always worn boots. I can't wear heels. I don't look good in heels. I've never been that type of girl. I look like a man in heels. And whether or not it's true, I believe that boots go with everything.
Laurie Notaro visited our new Montgomery home on June 15, 2004. She'll be moving to Corvallis in the fall.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State