a conversation with Laurie Notaro      


Bold Type: So, can you tell us a little bit of how your first book, The Idiots Girls' Action-Adventure Club , came to be? Is there really such a club? The book is a compilation of some of your columns from the Arizona Republic, right?

Laurie Notaro: Actually, the book isn't really a compilation of Arizona Republic columns—I've heard that a lot and honestly, there are very few Republic columns in there at all. I'm not sure how that misnomer began. The Republic was a very conservative newspaper, and frankly, there was no way I'd be able to write about 90 percent of that stuff there. It would have never made the edit. No way. Most of Idiot Girls came from pieces I wrote when I was in college, when the things I wrote about were really taking place. Idiot Girls is more accurately comprised of pieces from the magazine at Arizona State University, a small coffeehouse publication called Java and a magazine I started with a couple of my friends in 1994 called Planet Magazine. I'm so glad you asked that.

And yes, there was such a club, although it wasn't truly official with dues or anything. It was just a name I gave to my band of friends one morning after we woke up in my friend Patti's apartment and were surrounded by things we had pillaged the night before while under the influence. I don't know what it is about a pylon or a traffic sign that makes it so utterly irresistible when it's spotted by inebriated eyes, but in the morning, it sort of loses it magnificence and becomes a dirty, muddy—and and oftentimes bulky—reminder of how alcohol ruins lives. I mean, can you imagine the apartments of longtime alcoholics? They must have so much traffic and roadwork equipment in their houses there probably isn't even room for a couch or a coffee table. What a degenerate way to live! I bet some of them even have tractors or road pavers in their garages, carefully hidden away. It's shameful.

BT: We understand that you are no longer working for the paper as a columnist. Are your friends and family relieved that you will no longer be sharing their personal lives with the public on a weekly basis (though you are probably reaching a much larger audience now that your columns are in book form)? Are you going to miss being a columnist?

LN: I really will miss being a columnist. I loved my job; I adored it. I really enjoyed interacting with the readers on a daily basis, the readers of that column were unparalleled. They were the best, I made many, many good friends that way. And I still find myself thinking at least a couple times a day, "Oh! That would make a great column for tomorrow's piece....". My family, though, has always been very understanding about the stuff that I throw out into print. I guess that's partially because they know I'm not making material up and also I think the biggest reason is that they were just happy I had a job. Suffering a little embarrassment every now and then is way easier than supporting me, you know. What's a little "Oh my God, she didn't say that!" compared to forking over my mortgage payment and car insurance every month?

BT: Your book hit the New York Times paperback bestseller list for a few weeks, congrats on that! So where were you when you got the call that you made the list? What was your initial reaction?

LN: I was at work at The Arizona Republic when my editor, Bruce Tracy, called. Of course, I was babbling on and on about our high sales ranking on—I think it was like at 26 or something—and he wasn't sounding too impressed. And I got a little mad. So I said, "Listen, I know being #26 for an hour on Barnes and Noble isn't a big deal to you, but it's a big deal to me, because I will never get this high again and MY HOUR IS ALMOST UP." And he laughed at me and said, "Well, you go ahead and be excited about being #26 for three more minutes, and I'll be excited about you being #12 on the New York Times Bestseller list for a whole week. Okay?"

Naturally, I shut up. I couldn't say anything for a long time. And then I remember saying a word that my mother would make me go to confession for (most likely more than once, it's the BIG word), and then I just started to laugh. Because it was really funny. Here I was, literally a week away from losing my column, I was going to have to quit anyway because I couldn't get approval for time off for the book tour, I didn't know how I was going to make a living after that and I just got on the NYT list. I mean, how does that happen? I just freaked out. I'm STILL freaked out. I can't believe it. I feel like Miss America, but in a girdle. Miss America with a huge zit on her chin. A boil, perhaps. How does that happen?

BT: You've recently just gotten back from a national book tour, so how was it? Was it fun? What was the best part? Did you have any funny "crazy fans" story that you want to share?

LN: The tour was great fun, I had an amazing time, but it's also quite exhausting. It's kind of like being a rock star but without the dressing rooms, the sparkly outfits, the food, the groupies, the private planes or even seats in first class, without the massive crowds or expense accounts or drug and alcohol-induced sleep. There's no sleep. There's 4 am radio interviews (sometimes with people who don't know who you are or why they are interviewing you), there's visits to numerous bookstores in every city to sign stock (including some bookstores with sales associates that don't know who you are or why you are there), there's readings almost every night, there are planes to catch and terminals to wait in. There's the full-body searches and luggage searches in almost every airport, I've got that down to a science now, I just direct the lady with the Geiger counter thing to hooks on the back of my bra and we call it a draw.

But it was wonderful. I got to go great places, meet wonderful people, read to very accepting audiences and just have fun. Mainly, I had a lot of fun. I fell asleep on the potty before my reading in Seattle because I was so tired and only one person showed up to another one of the readings—the same woman who had heard me fart in the bathroom five minutes before—but it was a fantastic experience and I would LOVE to do it again. Not farting in the bathroom before my audience of one—but touring. I mean touring. As in the book tour thing. You know. But not farting. Just the touring.

BT: I now have to ask the "standard" questions that you are supposed to ask someone who is a comedian or a humor writer, so brace yourself. When did you realize that you were "funny"? Are you "funny" in person or do you think you are just "funny" on paper?

LN: Humor is such a subjective thing; what I may think is funny, a right-wing conservative Republican is probably not going to understand or even crack a smile about. I come from a very loud Italian family where we were fed more sarcasm than pastina, and so my sense of humor is kind of sarcastic, very cynical and a bit twisted. I know what I find funny, so if I can make myself laugh, then I'm doing okay, but beyond that, I suppose it's up to other people to say if I'm funny or not. It's not really up to me.

BT: Now for the standard "process" question. Do you have a typical "process" for writing? A favorite pen? A special place that you sit in your house? Do you write every day? In the middle of the night? What do you do when you are not feeling funny or have writer's block?

LN: Well, I've been a columnist for 10 years, and for the last two of them I wrote seven columns a week, so there's really no room for writer's block. I had a deadline at 6 pm every day whether I could think of something to say or not. I'm writing first-person non-fiction anyway, so if I have writer's block concerning my own life, I can only pray that it's a liquor-induced blackout rather than mad cow disease. If I don't feel like writing, if I am not particularly in a "funny" mood, that's too bad. I've had to write a column an hour after I've come back from a funeral. A deadline is a deadline, I mean, that was just what my job was. And no, there's no favorite pen—but I do have a stinky old keyboard with jelly, chocolate and cookie crumbs mushed in between the keys. My special place is I guess my office, but that's a fancy word for it. It's just the middle bedroom in my house with towers of paper everywhere and half-empty glasses of Pepsi and Milky Way wrappers. There used to be cigarette butts everywhere, but I quit smoking.

BT: So how did you get started in your career as a writer? Did you always want to be a writer? Do you refer to yourself as one?

LN: I suppose I always wanted to be a writer, I wrote little stories as a kid, I worked on the high school newspaper where I wrote my very first (and very bad) columns. I always gravitated toward that area, I guess. Did I always want to be a writer? Well, I wanted to be a rock star and a ballet dancer and a world-famous artist as well, but none of those occupations worked out too well because I sucked at all of those things. I majored in journalism at Arizona State University, where I began writing the columns I write now, but I cannot, in good conscience, refer to myself as a writer. I'm a columnist, maybe a journalist, I guess I'm an author, but That's not up to me to call myself, that's rather lofty. It's for the reader to decide.

BT: What's the best thing about being a writer? What's the worst thing?

LN: The best thing about doing this for a living is that I can work in dirty clothes or not put on makeup, my boss never reads my email and I can take as long of a lunch as I want to. The worst thing, naturally, would be the rejection, the hate mail—especially when I had a daily column. But after a while, you get used to it, and eventually it starts to become funny. I try to have a really good time with hate mail—I mean, really. You have to just picture what kind of person would take the time out of their day to write something NASTY about a humor column. Honestly, who cares? These people won't write their senators, their city council or probably even their own mothers, but they'll take the time to write you—someone they don't know and will probably never meet, someone who honestly will have no impact on their life as a whole— and complain that they don't find you particularly funny at all. Personally, I find that hysterical. I had one guy who wasn't a very good typist email me to tell me, "Your witing sucks." It cannot possibly get funnier than that. I just thought, "Well, I guess I really hit a nerve with Elmer Fudd."

BT: Your next book is due out in July. Can you tell us about it?

LN: The next book, Autobiography of a Fat Bride is just the next installment after Idiot Girls. It's what happens when the good-time girl finally leaves the bar and moves to the next phase of her life, which is more or less characterized by the phrase, "What's a co-signer again?". It's got all of the same characters, my friends, my family, and now a guy who MARRIES me in it. Fat Bride has some of my favorite material in it, and it's more representative of a level beyond college and it's a good example of how to "grow up" without "growing up." So to speak.

BT: What are you currently working on? Any desire to write fiction? Serious non-fiction? TV sitcoms or movies? If they made your life into a sit-com what actor would you want to play you?

LN: I'm working the re-writes for Fat Bride right now, then I'll finish the third book, called I Love Everybody, and then I'll start the fourth book, which will be fiction. Not serious fiction, but fiction. Funny fiction with creepy things tossed in. Nothing serious. There are too many people out there who write real serious fiction, and do it far better than I do. I would love to work on a sitcom, but that dream is a real long shot. And naturally, with the aid of a great dermatologist and a militant nutritionist, I would love to play me. But that is never going to happen, so I'm keeping my Chocolate Twizzlers right here in my holster, thank you.

BT: Who are the people that make you laugh? Favorite humor writers? Favorite cartoons? Comedians? Have you ever thought about doing stand-up?

LN: Who makes me laugh? My best friend, Jamie (who's in Idiot Girls quite a bit), my husband and my mom. They are the funniest people I've ever come across, ever. No one can make me laugh like they can. Writers would be David Sedaris, Jill Conner Browne and absolutely Erma Bombeck. I loved Erma. She lived here in Phoenix for a long time, she's a legend here. Everyone in Phoenix has a shrine both to the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe and Erma Bombeck in their front yards. She was a saint. I've never really considered doing stand up, but I have done readings/spoken word things fairly often in which I'll just tell a bunch of stories and run off at the mouth. I'm a big tangent person.

BT: You pretty much write about anyone and everyone that you encounter in your daily life... is there anything that you hold sacred, meaning that it's off limits to write about, or is everything fair game?

LN: Funny you asked that. The only area I will absolutely not touch with a red hot poker is the subject of my in-laws. They make a brief, brief appearance in Fat Bride, but it was necessary and I couldn't work around it. Other than that mention, I will never write about them. Not that there isn't sufficient material, because believe me, they run pretty good competition against my family. But last night, my father-in-law called a family "death" meeting to discuss his burial plans (just in case), and before we got to the part about how he wanted to be cremated—despite my sister-in-law's objections that it would be tough in that form to be resurrected for the afterlife and it would be a burden because someone else would have to carry that urn for all eternity and urns ARE NOT LIGHT OBJECTS—they all assured me that it was okay to write about them. Which I assured them was a bad idea, and so they quickly rescinded the offer, though I did get three minutes' worth of material before they changed their minds.

BT: If you were stranded on a desert island and you could bring any three things, what would you bring? AND, what if I said I'd give you another 3 things for your desert island stay only if you say yes to having a clown live on the island with you?


1) My Allman Brothers box set
2) Chocolate Twizzlers
3) a Solar-powered TV
4) My Sonicare toothbrush
5) A pillow-top Sealy Posturepedic mattress
6) And a gun with a scope large enough to accommodate a rainbow-colored fright wig.

BT: So, any advice to wannabe writers out there? Or wannabe humorists?

LN: Never take no for an answer. If you really believe in what you're doing, work hard, take NOTHING personally and if something blocks one route, find another. Never give up. Keep sending your stuff out; eventually, you'll hit the right time and the right person It took me eight years to get this book published, and there was no way I was ever going to give up on it. Stay determined, and keep in mind that it's mostly a game of luck and timing. Eventually, it will be your turn. And don't forget to let the hate mail make you laugh.

--Interview by Jenny Lee

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    Photo credit: Corbett Upton