You know that Mary-Louise Parker can act. Even if you never saw her in her very dark, very funny Showtime series Weeds
, for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, you probably caught her in Bullets over Broadway
, The Portrait of a Lady
, Fried Green Tomatoes
, or HBO's Angels in America
, to name a few of the many projects she's worked on. But you probably didn't know that Parker is also a writer. Dear Mr. You
, her first book, is a memoir in the form of letters to various men in Parker's life (real and imagined). It is playful, poetic, inventive, page-turning, and downright gorgeously written.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, raves, "Dear Mr. You is straight-up fantastic; a gripping and deeply humane and often hilarious book. It catches glimpses of life at all sorts of unexpected moments, electrifying them with its sharp-eyed astonishment at how absurd and joyous things can get. There’s nothing cheaply earned about its wonder; nothing sugarcoated in its gratitude. It's all grit, all messy particulars — full of surprise and full-throated in its song." And Mary Karr writes, "Dear Mr. You is a pants-pissingly funny, gut-wrenching meditation on her loving and tormented encounters with the masculine….I drank it down in one gulp, then started back at page one again. A magnificent, necessary surprise."
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Jill Owens: How did Dear Mr. You come to be? It's such a good idea, structuring a book as letters to people.
Mary-Louise Parker: The very first one I wrote was the invocation; it was something I'd written for Esquire when they asked me to write about men in general. That was quite a few years ago, but I remembered I loved writing it and being able to mix the mundane with the romantic and the poetic. It felt more like a little prose poem.
I wanted to keep writing it, but of course, I had a word count. It was just a little piece in the magazine. A couple of people mentioned it to me, but I was posing right next to it in my underwear making a pie, or something like that, and it completely upstaged the whole piece. [Laughter] But I loved writing it, and so later I experimented with writing others. It really grew out of the first one that I wrote for my dad.
Jill: There's the first letter to your dad and then the last one as well, which is beautiful and emphasizes his role in inspiring your writing in general. What do you associate with him about yourself? What do you see of him in you?
Parker: Everything. It's pretty striking when your kids get older and you see not only yourself but your own parents in your children. I certainly see my father in my son, and oddly, my daughter has so many traits of my mother's. She's adopted but she's so like my mother, it's almost freakish.
But to begin with, my dad gave me a love of books and a love of words. So much of my love of theater and acting is about the text itself and connecting to it. And poetry. He and I used to send poems back and forth to each other in the mail; he really understood poetry, and he understood writing. He would read anything. There's a great bookstore in New York called Three Lives and Company in the West Village. They don't really do book clubs, but I had them structure one for him, and he loved it. I would send him a book on Monday and if I talked to him on Wednesday, he would have finished it. He loved to sit down and devour a book like it was some kind of confection. He loved to read, to hold new books, and to go into bookstores. He loved bookstores, and he loved libraries.
All the extremes of me are him. He was a person without a lot of gray area, but he also had a very dreamy side. He was one of those people who... he was not lacking in emphasis. [Laughter] And sweetness and romance and tenderness. But at the same time, sometimes you could be talking to him — not when I was talking to him, but I'd see sometimes — you'd walk in a room and he could stare out a window for hours. I'm like that also.
Jill: You mentioned that writing the first piece for Esquire felt like a prose poem, and that you have a love for poetry in general. There's a great intimacy to the voice in your book that I think writing letters creates. But it also occurred to me that it's there because of the details and the specifics you choose — it's almost like a shared inside joke, and it occurs to me that poetry can sometimes work that same way. It feels like there's poetry all throughout this book.
Parker: I like all different kinds of poetry and poets, but Michael [Taeckens, her publicist] actually sent me a book of Linda Gregg's that I was reading recently. She can be so direct, and I love that. Poetry sometimes feels much more direct to me than fiction. It feels so immediate. It's like tequila — it goes in your veins. I love the movement of that, the way it can shake you up.
Jill: Immediate is a good word; I do feel like this book is very immediate, too.
How did you choose who to include and who not to?
Parker: That was hard because there were some people that, in my heart, I thought, Well, I'm writing a book about men and this person was massively influential in my life. Even Hunter [Parrish]. He played my son on my TV show. We're very, very close, but the right letter for Hunter didn't happen. There were a lot of letters that didn't end up in the book.
|“All the extremes of me are him.”
There's a painter, Jules Olitski, who I really loved and who I was friendly with. I wrote a very long letter to him that only came out at the last minute. I actually had forgotten this, but I had one to Erwin Schrödinger that only I and maybe one other person liked. But I clung to it for a long time. Then that went out at the last minute.
It was hard. Sometimes they just felt like they didn't really belong. The Olitski letter… it almost didn't feel like the same writer. It felt like the same person but on a different timeline.
There's more of a... not pressure, but there's a tempo to the book. It has a heartbeat, and that piece was almost too leisurely. I worried that "Dear Neighbor" would be too leisurely too, but something about it starts to move at the end, I think. It also shows the part of my life that is a little slower.
Jill: Yeah, it's very different than some of the other letters, but I loved that illustration of the country life and your amazing neighbor who can do absolutely everything.
Parker: He's pretty amazing.
Jill: Yeah, he sounds like a pretty extraordinary person.
Parker: He built me a pot rack the other day out of a crate. We were just looking at this crate and I was like, "Wouldn't it be cool if this hung over my oven?" I came back and he'd made it into a pot rack. It's so funny.
Jill: Speaking of tempo, how did you order the letters? Because they seem vaguely chronological, but it seems like there was another organizing principle, either with the emotional pacing or the rhythm.
Parker: There were some that jumped all over time. "Risk Taker," for instance, moved throughout time, as does "Dear Future Man Who Loves My Daughter." One thing that I was concerned about, I ended up doing. I didn't know that "Grandpa" and "Daddy" should be at the beginning of the book, one right after the other.
Now I love that, but in the beginning I was really worried about it. I was adamant that it shouldn't be like that.
Jill: What changed your mind?
Parker: I don't know. Part of it is that I had this other letter called "Dear Boys by the Bay," and I put part of it in "Dear Grandpa," and it changed the tone of it a little bit. Then I liked "Grandpa" being there, because it felt a little more surprising.
Jill: You mentioned hearing a lot of stories about your grandpa, who died before you were born. What's one of your favorite stories about him that's not in this book?
Parker: Oh, God. There is a story about how — I think he was a drinker. My parents, my niece Janet, her parents, my brother, and his wife, they kind of underdrink. So many people I know, their parents overdrank. I think my parents could have stood a little bit more. [Laughter]
It's not like they're prudes. If I open a bottle of champagne, they get excited. They certainly didn't have a drink every day at all. At all. Which I don't think is the worst way to grow up.
But so there was a story that somebody had put my grandpa in a taxi or somebody had given him a ride. He wasn't in his own car. He was riding home from the bar, I think, because he couldn't drive.
And he was nearing some sort of demonstration. There was, like, a parade going on, and there was a platform with baton twirlers and streamers. This is probably the '20s, maybe the '30s. And he stuck his head out of the car to see because traffic was stuck. Two people came up on either side and said, "What's taken you so long? We've been waiting here. We've got everyone lined up."
They dragged him to the stage. They thought he was the candidate. He apparently gave some really magnetic speech — he was a little bit drunk, but he gave some really intense speech about how we have to take care of our children and make more safety regulations for the miners (he was a coal miner).
Then they brought him down off the stage and wanted to take pictures of him touring the local high school. They took pictures of him, and brought him into the gymnasium. Then he got up on the double bars and wanted to do a trick for everybody.
He was going on the bars and fell, and it was about that time that somebody figured out something was wrong, and I think the actual candidate showed up and they shuffled him off. He was kind of game like that. He was bigger than life, apparently.
Jill: It sounds like it! I liked that the deer dancer letter occurs early in the book, both because it's a beautiful story and because the way he chooses you, the way you feel seen by him, seems to come up with other people in the book. There are these moments of connection or attention, even, that stops the usual progress of a day or life.
Parker: Yes, that's really big for me. I think that was one of my first tastes of that. Certainly, my father always saw me in a different way. He always saw me and understood me and appreciated me and my work, even when other people didn't, and believed in me and never tried to influence me in any way.
When I think that I went to college, which was basically a drama school — well, I didn't really go to college. At the conservatory they did have some academics so you could get a bachelor's degree, but you didn't have to take them if you didn't want a bachelor's degree. It was very, very limited. I think it was just a couple of classes. And I said I didn't want to because I thought it would interfere with my arts classes. When I think about it now, most fathers would have said, "You have to get your bachelor's degree."
But my father just did not believe in influencing my instinct — and this is a man from the military, who grew up in West Virginia, a country boy. He was a very big thinker and he felt like he didn't want to influence me in terms of who to love, who to go with, what to do with my life, where to live. He wouldn't dream of it. It was always just: "You're going to do great. I think that's a wise decision."
He made me believe in my decisions, and he also taught me to not make decisions out of fear. To, in fact, be conscious of doing the opposite, to take a risk. I don't even know that risk is the right word. Maybe what other people would deem risky. If it doesn't feel like a risk to you, then maybe it's simply a choice.
He really saw me and saw what I wanted to do, and I think that was and is a theme for me in life. I think I'm most uncomfortable when I feel misrepresented or misunderstood or misquoted, even. It makes me very uncomfortable.
And of course there's something of that with men, of feeling really noticed and chosen that is so romantic and intoxicating, that I was always up for.
Jill: Reading about when you were in art school, it seems like that is a place where you felt understood more. You felt less alone in the things that you were interested in.
There is a letter to your movement teacher there, and the end of that letter is surprising. It felt so thoughtful and self-aware to realize how tough it is to change your mind about somebody, to change your impression of someone. I found that moving, how you both evolved.
Parker: Thank you. He really gave me that opportunity, unwittingly or not. He gave me that chance, not only to change his mind but to understand that sometimes it isn't about what I want or if I'm right or not. It's about, what is the right thing to do in the situation? It doesn't matter if I'm bitter about him not liking me or not. It doesn't matter if he doesn't like me for what I feel are the wrong reasons. What matters is he's my teacher and I've entered into this agreement by being his student and it's up to me — I can learn or not. And he gave me that opportunity by letting me back in, little by little, and acknowledging that I was trying. It doesn't matter that I thought I was before. It only mattered that I was making the right effort, while still being true to myself.
|“Poetry sometimes feels much more direct to me than fiction. It feels so immediate. It's like tequila — it goes in your veins.”
That's really informative. It's like learning how to apologize. There is so much power in that. I try to teach that to my children, that it's generally never a mistake. I went through that with my son the other day. I tried to very lightly pass that concept along, and I know it came from my father. He just got it.
I think that we often feel weak when we apologize, but it really does the opposite. It just infuses you with strength, because you have to admit to your own fallibility, and our inability to hear ourselves properly sometimes.
Jill: The accountant letter is funny and sweet. I was wondering, why did you think you needed an accountant when you were that young and that broke?
Parker: They were, like, show business accountants. Everyone had one. I was just starting to work a little and I had an agent. I had friends that were working more than me. I had this one friend whose house I was living in. I was actually sleeping on her couch. It was kind of crazy; we were coming back from doing a play together in San Diego. We were on the airplane — this is back when you could smoke on the airplane — we were in the smoking section, and she said, "Do you want to share a taxi?"
And I said, "Yeah, but I don't know where I'm going."
She was like, "What do you mean?"
I said, "I kind of forgot. I don't have anywhere to live." She was like, "You are out of your mind. You're coming and living with me."
She was a really, really nice lady — girl then — and she let me sleep in her apartment for a while. I remember, she was going away to do a job and she was like, "You need an accountant. This is what you do," and she showed me how she would put all of her bills in an envelope and mail them to the accountant. She was like, "They do it all."
I met her accountant and I couldn't understand his statements, and eventually people were saying, "You need to have somebody help you." Like I said, I did not have anything then. My accountant, for whatever reason — my sleeping on his couch, I think, endeared me to him forever, and he has taken care of me.
He just retired this year and I probably cried for an hour and a half. He was good to my parents; he was incredible to my father and loyal to me. He had this little gruff, no-nonsense thing, this very New York vibe. An adorable, wonderful man.
Jill: Accountant as life coach.
Parker: Exactly. One time he was trying to explain taxes to me; I couldn't get it.
He drew a diagram of a corset. He was like, "If you spend $50 on a corset, 40 percent of it goes..." He was trying to make me understand income tax, and he was doing it with little pictures of lingerie. Not trying to be funny or cute at all, or salacious. He was just like, this is what she will understand. Total fatherly. He was amazing.
Jill: That's great. The Cerberus letter — why did you decide to combine the three relationships into one letter like that?
Parker: At first it was Leviathan. And then it was — there is a two-headed dragon that's the brother of Cerberus. My son insists that it was his idea, and he was into the Greeks at the time. I don't know that that's true. [Laughter] I am certainly willing to give anyone credit for a good idea.
It was mostly that I wanted it to be a monster. There is something about when we remember things, how we polarize everything so dramatically, and we become so above reproach. I wanted the heroine that was me to be completely almost angelic and innocent, which in some ways, I was, to some degree back then. There was a part of me that thought in doing that, it just felt fun. I liked being able to change the font size, you know what I mean? [Laughter] I liked the idea of it being a fairytale, and I also felt as though in making myself so innocent, almost to a cartoon degree, that it would be funnier and it wouldn't beg for sympathy, which I didn't want. If it were told in a straightforward way, I mean…
Part of this is in retrospect, mind you, because at the time I just thought, Oh cool! It'll be a fairy tale. [Laughter]
But why it works for me now is that I was able to give it more irony, and at the same time, I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me or feel that I was asking for that, because like I said, I could be the evil queen in someone's fairy tale and we are all poor dogs in the end.
I learned so much from those people — who might be four people, or it might be five, actually. And for myself, because I was complicit. I had to hang up the phone at a certain point. I just had to stop lying down on the tracks. I think a lot of women learn that and in some ways, I learned it in a hard way because I was never someone to chase after a guy, necessarily. I always felt I could just move from one to the next. But I would just fall so hard into situations where I kept thinking things would change. I kept thinking, Certainly this thing will change if I love this person enough. Or: This will change if I show them X, Y, Z.
I think that is what I thought love was. My parents were together 64 years, so I think that I thought there's a certain amount of sticking by someone. I don't think that anymore.
Jill: Well, 64 years is pretty rare.
Parker: I think it's just a wild exception. I am so glad I got to see it. It's beautiful that it happened at all, but I don't think it's regular or to be expected or to be even wished for, honestly.
Jill: You use these letters, in a way, to go more deeply into ideas about how we connect as human beings. How did you think about that aspect of it? As you were remembering them, as you were writing these pieces, did you draw out ideas that you have learned or thought about that seemed relevant, or was it more piecemeal than that?
Parker: No, I think it was moments. Like I just remembered the moment of that kid's feet in the hospital and why he haunts me. The moment in church with Father Bob when I asked him about hell. When I was in Abe's office and I fell asleep on his couch. It was moments when somebody was really kind to me and gave me a moment. I don't think there was anything terribly conscious about wanting to include anything thematic.
So many things became clear as I wrote the pieces. It took a while for "Movement Teacher." I wrote it a few times before I realized I wasn't fully being honest about it. I was making myself too much the hero of the story. I thought I was not. The more I wrote, it was kind of like the experience itself. The more I wrote it, the more I had to admit what role I actually played.
There are things that you think, Oh God, I don't want to remember that. But they happened and they are interesting to me. They were interesting to me to try to wrestle onto paper.
Jill: What has acting taught you about writing, and vice versa?
Parker: I don't know. I do understand the value of economy and rhythm and detail. They have always been so present in me. The writing has been private, though. Until I started writing for Esquire and a couple of other magazines, nobody really knew. Even then, people would ask me if I wrote it myself. They thought somebody else wrote it for Esquire or something like that.
It wasn't something people really knew about me, except if they knew me very well. For a birthday, I might give somebody a sonnet or a short story or something like that. They've always been a part of me. I don't know where one begins and the other ends.
Jill: Since it has always been so private, why did you decide to publish now?
Parker: It wasn't private just because I wanted it to be private. Nobody asked me to write, necessarily, and I didn't know that I could. There wasn't an opportunity to do more with it. Plus I was occupied with acting and children and things. But I always loved it.
People asked me to write more once I had written for Esquire for a while. Some people did approach me to write a more typical book about my life that I was not so interested in. It took me a while to find a literary agent who I liked, and when I did, I had this idea and he helped me to hold on to it.
It's something I could've tossed around and thought about and turned over in my head and changed my mind about for another 10 years. It's hard for me to make decisions like that. Once I do, I really commit, and I was really writing seriously.
Jill: What are you reading and enjoying now?
Parker: I love Linda Gregg now and all of her stuff. I just read Kevin Young's Book of Hours, which is so beautiful.
Jill: I love him. He was a teacher of mine many years ago.
Parker: Are you serious? What's he like?
Jill: He's fantastic. He's so smart and so generous and lovely.
Parker: I'm so happy to hear that. I'm reading Edna O'Brien,The Love Object, her collection of short stories. I love her. I read Mary Karr's wonderful book, The Art of Memoir. I've been reading some Franz Wright, and I'm always reading Mark Strand. He's always next to my bed. I read H Is for Hawk. I thought that was an incredible book. A lot of poetry.
Jill: That makes me so happy that you love poetry so much. I am always excited when poetry gets some publicity.
Parker: It's so hard, because when people say, "I don't get it" or "I don't understand it," I just think, What are you talking about? How can you not? It's like saying you don't get food. I don't understand what you mean. There are so many different kinds! It's like saying that you don't get music. There are some poets I don't even connect to, and I still really love reading their poetry. I think it's so interesting.