The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death
April 12, 2009
About this Book
In a collection of humorous first-person essays, Laurie Notaro shares her experiences with remarkable candor, including the popular phenomenon of laser hair removal (because at least one of her chins should be stubble-free). She bemoans the scourge of the Open Mouth Coughers on America's airplanes and in similarly congested areas and “welcomes” the newest ex-con to her neighborhood. And, against her own better judgment, Notaro watches every Discovery Health Channel special on parasites and tapeworms that has ever aired, resulting in an overwhelming fear of a worm invasion a little too close to home.
Ron Carlson: Hello, welcome to Books & Co. I’m Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Laurie Notaro, who's here with her most recent book, The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death, a collection of serio-comic, or comically serious, essays. Are they essays?
Laurie Notaro: Oh, absolutely. They're essays, they're opinions, reflections. There's a hissy fit in there or two. So it's a collection of all different kinds of stuff.
Ron Carlson: The hissy fit may be my favorite part of many favorite parts. So this book is a compendium of your opinions, and you get to take something such as a phrase you're weary of or trying to sell your house or the feelings, and then you just get to what, go nuts?
Laurie Notaro: Yeah, just go -- absolutely go nuts, just explore whatever I can, whatever I find funny in that situation, and see kind of where it takes me and where we end up, so...
Ron Carlson: You're a writer who's always -- I mean, is all of your work -- I think it is -- comic? I mean, have that edge that humor?
Laurie Notaro: I try. That's really what I’m drawn to, and I’ve tried -- I’ve done some serious things like when I was very broke before I was working at the Arizona Republic and I wrote, I think, 300 product reviews for Amazon about spatulas and spoons from OXO. So that stuff wasn't too funny. It was actually pretty dry. But as far as what I’m doing now in my nonfiction and even in my fiction, I really like -- that's what I’m known for and that's what I’ve just been sticking with, sure.
Ron Carlson: The -- I noticed the spatulas appear in this book somewhere, so yeah -- so don't -- let's not -- that wasn't wasted time. Congratulations. But the thing is, on this book, how do you -- this has, what, 15 or 18 essays in it?
Laurie Notaro: You know, I haven't counted, but that sounds about right.
Ron Carlson: Is there a form to such a book? I’m very interested -- I know how a piece might be written, that one of the pieces we're going to sample is this one about the death of the catchphrase "it's all good," and are you -- first of all, how would you describe yourself? Are you a critic of contemporary culture, are you a sociologist, are you an anthropologist?
Laurie Notaro: Wow, those are really fancy titles. I would be honored to take any of them, but I think that I would – I feel like that was kind of a sham for me, you know? I think that I’m -- maybe even "commentator" might be going a little bit far. I’m kind of an antagonist, I think. That's, I think, the perspective that I’m coming from. Yeah, I think that would be a more appropriate or accurate word. Yeah, I think I just kind of observe, absorb, and then kind of spit back out.
Ron Carlson: Is all of your work -- we talk about this a lot on this program in terms of where are your ideas from and so on. Is your work drawn from your life?
Laurie Notaro: Absolutely, absolutely. There's -- I keep a little notebook in my purse and then I keep stuff in my head as well. So when I’m getting ready to write a book, I start going back and I go through my drawer and get all my little pieces of paper out of my purse, whichever ones I haven't eaten by then or that haven't turned into compost, and I just assemble a big, huge list. And then I go down and I get a feeling, "Do I want to write about this piece or does this one seem a little dry?" And I just work on my favorite ones until I have enough to send to my publisher and we get a book.
Ron Carlson: That sounds daunting, to have that big list of to-do essays. Don't you do them by pieces? Don't you sometimes just do one or two and put them in a drawer and then --
Laurie Notaro: No, I never do that. I never -- when I was working at the Republic and when I was working at ASU, I had a -- I had a backlog of a good ten years' worth of stuff, but I’ve exhausted all that now, so with this book I didn't have really anything to fall back on. I had maybe one or two pieces, so I made that list. And actually, that's really fun for me, because I get to -- it's not really daunting at all. I get to go back and relive different episodes of my life that were really fun or exciting things that happened or really humiliating things that happened. So for me, it's just kind of like stepping back in time and remembering all the stuff and just chronicling it.
Ron Carlson: So you have -- I want to talk about -- so you write down the idea such as, like, selling your house.
Laurie Notaro: Yeah, and I’ll just write that down.
Ron Carlson: So the good news and the bad news is we're going to sell our house. It’s a chore, it's onerous, but it has its own emotional life also, saying goodbye to a place, et cetera. So when you start an essay -- I’ve talked to fiction writers about this, and you're -- these are essays -- do you know everything that's going to happen in that essay or is the process, does it unfold for you or -- can you talk a little bit about the creative process?
Laurie Notaro: That's really interesting. Because it's nonfiction, I generally always know factually how it's going to end up. Sometimes it's a challenge to put timelines together when I want to bring one episode in and hook it up to another one. Sometimes that might be a challenge in the same piece, as in selling my house. There are five or six different peaks in there that I need to line up and figure out chronologically how am I going to organize this, or how am I going to segue one into the other, how are they going to be linked? So that sometimes is the biggest challenge that I’ve got to face within a piece, but factually I always know how it's going to end up. Creatively, I don't always know. I never know what the punch line is going to be at the end, and there's got to be a punch line. They’re humor pieces, so there’s got to be a "buh-dum-bump" at the end, you know what I mean? And so sometimes I will kind of finish out or rough out a piece and sit there for a while. typically, I’ll go back to the beginning and I’ll find my answer in there, but I always know that the answer's out there somewhere, it's just basically I’ve got to sort through my little universe in order to find that punch line and how it relates to the piece. And I always find it. I always find it. Sometimes it takes me a day or sometimes it might take me a couple of months, and all of a sudden I’ll be sitting in the car driving someplace and think, "that's it, I got it. I got it.” but eventually it finds me or I find it. I don't know if that makes sense.
Ron Carlson: No, yeah, in the house piece, which is sort of one of the longer essays, she's surprised, first of all, that there's a for-sale sign in her yard, and then she remembers, "oh, yes, we're selling the house," and then it's sort of -- you dealt with a lot of humiliating issues in terms of opening your house to the public. Were those -- were those -- why don't you cite some of those and -- because I want to ask about them.
Laurie Notaro: Because people are crazy when they come and look at your house. It's like they're kind of going to Costco, but for real estate. It's like they want to test everything out, but this is still my stuff. So I would come home and I’d find food had been eaten out of my refrigerator or somebody had, like, gotten a drink or -- using the bathroom is one thing, I can understand that, but actually -- someone had taken the claw feet off of my bathtub to see how they were attached and then just kind of left them there, you know? It was like that kind of bravado and just assumption was so insane to me that I knew that I had to write about it because it was just -- I think it probably happens to everybody who sells a house, but it's just so outrageous and crazy, it's almost unbelievable.
Ron Carlson: Well, I was going to ask you about -- so you were invaded by these people looking at your house, and then you talk about it very comically, and then the -- one of the elements -- as I was reading, I thought, "oh, is she exaggerating here?" The woman's driving away with the bottled water and things like that?
Laurie Notaro: No, that was the lady who bought my house. Yeah, I was driving down the street and she was drinking my big, fancy blue bottle of water that I bought at Trader Joe’s for -- it was for decoration. They were all props. None of that stuff really belonged in my house, but I dressed the house like it was the Friends set, you know what I mean? Because no one wanted to buy a house from me, but they wanted to buy a house from someone that they pictured in their head, so I had set the house up like that. And, yeah, she kind of took it literally and just helped herself out because she figured it was her house now. And I saw -- as we passed each other, I thought, "That’s my water!" And I was so angry until I called the realtor and he was just like, "listen, she just made a full-price offer on your house, she can have the water. We can work it out."
Ron Carlson: That's remarkable. The other piece -- well, there's another piece. And in each of these essays, the voice remains the same because it's essentially you. Sometimes you raise your voice a little bit in some of them, such as the title piece, but the other charming domestic story was about the extended warranty.
Laurie Notaro: Oh, on my treadmill.
Ron Carlson: The woman's very -- you are very proud of having purchased the extended warranty.
Laurie Notaro: Well, I think that I’m covering all bases, you know? I think that no matter how much I use it or don't use it, when it breaks -- because it's going to break because it's an appliance -- I’m kind of covered with it. And yet I don't realize that it's going to take seven weeks to get this thing fixed. And while I’m waiting, I’m gaining weight and I’m having to buy new pants, waiting for this treadmill to come, and it just -- that was a way to build the piece up, too -- to build up the frustration just like it happened in real life. So, yeah, they called me a couple of weeks ago to buy the treadmill warranty again, and this time I turned them down.
Ron Carlson: Oh, well, maybe there's an essay in that, too. The -- that was a piece which went further even than that, with the repairman. And everyone has, I guess, a story about waiting for someone -- the plumber or the electrician -- and here you're waiting for someone to come and repair the treadmill, and it's a marathon. And then your story goes into even more -- and there's a lot of self-deprecating humor in the book about the buffet on the cruise, for example, and the birthday party at the kennel, just to cite a few. Is that a cornerstone of your work, the idea that making fun of yourself?
Laurie Notaro: And that's -- a lot of people say that about me, that it is very self-deprecating, and therefore I must really have a problem with my self-esteem, but to be honest, I’m being honest. That's really -- those are the things that happen, and I find that in my own taste, the more blatant and naked you make something in a situation, the funnier it's going to be. The more somebody can relate to it and put their -- not their stamp, but their experiences on it, you know, and relate to it back to them, their own selves in that way. So the less I kind of clutter it with details and the more honest and, yeah, like I said, just bare open, just "this is the way it is, right there in front of you." I find the more humiliating something is and the more honest it is, the more funny it is.
Ron Carlson: Well, one of the things about a book like this is its sort of company. I mean, we read and it's like being with a friend who's telling us, "Oh, listen to what happened." And do you ever start on certain -- do you have a list of these ideas that you write and then you don't -- you didn't include them in the book?
Laurie Notaro: Oh, certainly, yeah. On this one, I had about 30 pieces that I wanted to write, and I just flat out ran out of time. I just ran out of time. I would've loved -- the book would've been about this big, but there was just simply no time to include everything in there. And as a matter of fact, there were some pieces in there that I had to go back and edit out, because there would be references in there to a subsequent piece that was a joke played off of another piece but I just -- I didn't get -- I didn't have enough time to get there and actually finish that piece, so I’ll just save that piece for the next book and work on it then.
Ron Carlson: As a writer, then, of these books, are you -- is life just rich? I mean, there's just too much material.
Laurie Notaro: On a good day, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. On a good day, when even if something really bad happens -- for a moment -- or something really embarrassing, like I was in LAX. on Monday and I realized that I had managed to not only get in the car, drive down there in a cab, check in, go to several different gates -- with Alaska Airlines, American Airlines -- then finally get to my gate, sit down, and realize that my entire dress was unbuttoned from here to my waist. Now, for a minute, I kind of freaked out and thought, "I can't believe that happened to me. I can't believe it happened again," you know? I would've learned my lesson by now, it's happened so many times. But then I just sat down and I texted my best friend and I was just like, "yeah, it's happened again." And so that, to me, I got a good laugh at it, there's hopefully someplace I can stick it in and it'll be a good laugh for somebody else. So in a way, it's worth it. In a way, I get paid back for -- yeah, for doing silly, bad things.
Ron Carlson: Absolutely. I think I saw you in the airport that day. No, I’m kidding.
Laurie Notaro: I was wearing a nice slip underneath it. It wasn't all the way out, but still.
Ron Carlson: Well, it seems to me that, having read your book -- and essentially, there isn't -- although there is one very odd, sort of extreme moment when you get the notice from the police, in that essay -- what was it called?
Laurie Notaro: "Love thy neighbor."
Ron Carlson: "Love thy neighbor." And you got a letter, and did that happen?
Laurie Notaro: That did happen, and that actually happened when I was still living in Phoenix, far before I moved. And it was such --
Ron Carlson: Why don't you explain what happened?
Laurie Notaro: What had happened was that I got a letter from the City of Phoenix letting me know that I had a level-three sex offender living somewhere in my neighborhood, and he was actually living two doors down from me. And it was such a sensitive subject that I was like, "how am I going to find humor in this?" And it took me -- because I knew that there was humor in it and it was funny to me in certain ways, but it took me a long time to develop a perspective and a way that I was going to approach it where I think that I could make it more universal and not so kind of individualistic that was already inside my head, to make it relatable to other people who may not have had -- like my mother has never had a level-three sex offender live down the street from her. But in order for my mom to think its funny, it took me several years to be able to figure out how I was going to approach it and write about it that it would be relatable to other people aside from myself.
Ron Carlson: Let me remind everyone that we're talking to Laurie Notaro about her most recent book, The Idiot Girl and The Flaming Tantrum of Death, which we'll talk about in a minute. But it's interesting about America, because a letter like that, which is more general than we think, and life in America, all the elements of society, the law, and culture have moments in them where you think, "is this real?" and so it seems to me like a writer like yourself, who has an eye for irony, would be -- just have a list of essays as long as your arm.
Laurie Notaro: And that, that's very true. Things happen every day. And I see stuff on the news, and I think, "Oh, I wish I could incorporate that into something," but there's just too much. Sometimes there's an overload of stuff to write about, so generally I’ll stick with my own experiences, but there has to be enough kind of auxiliary meat on it. I don't know if -- yeah. In order to turn it into a full, revolving piece that is not just one episode, bing, and that's over. It's enough to -- I’ve got to have several components into it, enough to build it up. So sometimes there are really funny things that just kind of just fly away because there's not enough to build on it.
Ron Carlson: Well, there are a lot of issues which are curiosities and could be said, and then people, "oh, that is curious." but I think one of the things about your book is that each of these essays carry -- because they are -- they do have the personal life in them that you are embodying, such as in this piece about germaphobia, which is called, um...
Laurie Notaro: "Sickening."
Ron Carlson: "Sickening," perfect. And will you read us the first pa-- first paragraph of that? This is an essay called "Sickening" by Laurie Notaro.
Laurie Notaro: "When I found my seat on the airplane, the woman sitting beside me looked completely normal. She wasn't missing teeth, she didn't have any pronounced facial scabs, her hair appeared freshly washed, and I sincerely doubted that the octogenarian sitting next to her was a deputy extraditing a passenger. So when she open-mouth coughed as she was flipping through the airline magazine, I politely cleared my throat. When the second open-mouth cough shot out of her like a bullet approximately a minute later, I cleared my throat again and gave her a warning look, which involves furrowing my brow, turning the corners of my mouth downward, and deeply expressing with my eyes, 'if you want to keep coughing like that, we'll give you a sedative, put you in a crate, and stick you in the cargo hold with the rest of the livestock.' approximately 60 seconds later had passed -- I’m sorry. Approximately 60 seconds later, she erupted her foul lung discharge with no preventative barrier yet again, all bets were off, and I reach into my purse and pulled out my bird-flu mask.” That’s the first paragraph.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, it goes on then to deal with -- first of all, are you, any more than the ordinary person, more germaphobic?
Laurie Notaro: I'm a little nuts. I have a bird-flu mask; I have 100 of them.
Ron Carlson: No, you don't.
Laurie Notaro: I do.
Ron Carlson: You have a bird-flu mask collection?
Laurie Notaro: I do. Well, they come in packages of 50, so I bought -- in case I used up one pack, I had another pack. So, yeah.
Ron Carlson: You know, I’m going to -- I need to know, what does a bird-flu mask look like? Is it like a painter's mask?
Laurie Notaro: It's enormous. You know those SARS masks that people were wearing in China several years ago? It’s as big as that, and it covers your entire face. It goes all the way over here, it has a little metal bar in it, so it folds over, and then it goes kind of over your ears and all the way under your -- and the wonderful thing about those is that if you put them on and you don't really feel like entertaining or interacting socially with someone else, no one -- once you slap that thing on your face, that is it. You become invisible. No one will speak to you, not even a stewardess. She doesn't care if you want peanuts, if you want a blanket, if you need something to drink. You are simply not there; you're a nut with a mask on your face, and that's all she cares about.
Ron Carlson: Laurie, you're sounding like a person who's had one of these masks on. Have you had -- you have, haven't you?
Laurie Notaro: Have I worn the mask? Of course!
Ron Carlson: Of course, I knew that. So on the airplane?
Laurie Notaro: Yes. With that lady, absolutely I did. Certainly, yeah. And she didn't cough again.
Ron Carlson: Okay.
Laurie Notaro: Yeah, so it did its job: I didn't get sick and everyone was happy. I didn't get a drink. I was thirsty, but I was happy.
Ron Carlson: So this starts with an incident on the plane and it's nicely done, and then how do you extend the essay further? Are there other moments -- did you start to link it together with those other moments where germs might be present?
Laurie Notaro: Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely. I was able to bring it in to a Discovery Channel piece that I had seen about viruses that I’d been waiting to write about for years, and I thought, "oh, they're totally linked, so I can absolutely put that in." and then there's also this very bizarre dream that I can't talk about on the air that I was able to link in there, too, and so I -- it was the perfect puzzle for some various things out there that I was able to just grab out and put them all together and roll them up in a nice little ball.
Ron Carlson: Very squeamish things.
Laurie Notaro: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, so the pleasant and the unpleasant. The -- well, there's another piece in here which I liked very much where -- about a phrase, about the "It's all good" and the fact that it met its demise. And I want to sample that, because it's a little different, and I have the page right here. Yeah, there it is. Will you read those two paragraphs?
Laurie Notaro: Absolutely. This is something that I had never tried to write anything like this before. This is completely in a third-person kind of off-the-cuff way. I wrote it in about two hours, and I-- it's so different, but I think it's one of the best things that I’ve ever done, personally. It’s "Death of a Catchphrase." "Last Saturday night at approximately 8:23 p.m., the phrase 'It's all good' quietly passed away while appearing in a primetime commercial for Buick. The cause of death was officially determined as overexposure, though the phrase had indeed lived an extended and prosperous life, having a longstanding returning role on the Jerry Springer show and the view. Survived by his wife, 'You go, girl!' and his children, 'Don't go there' and 'Talk to the hand,' the slang star was born in a schoolyard when several third graders were fighting over a piece of Laffy Taffy and it fell on the ground. Kenny Moses, a grammatically challenged fat child, scraped the dirt off the taffy with a popsicle stick and proclaimed, 'It's all good.' after spreading through the school like wildfire, it was apparent that the phrase showed promise of a future in slang when several adults repeatedly asked, 'Will you please stop saying that? What does that mean?' Soon, 'It's all good' found a home in the hallways of middle and high schools. It was just a matter of time before someone noticed that 'It's all good' had star quality with a potential for greatness."
Ron Carlson: And then you carry on as if -- R.I.P. Nice work. I wanted to ask you about humor writing. You’re dealing with ordinary things and ordinary life. In a way, you -- who are your influences? Did you -- did you read comic writers or...
Laurie Notaro: You know, that --
Ron Carlson: There's a great history of them, but...
Laurie Notaro: When I was growing up, naturally, living in Arizona, I read Erma Bombeck.
Ron Carlson: I was going to ask.
Laurie Notaro: Even from when I was -- I would say probably -- and I’m not exaggerating -- from fifth or sixth grade, I was reading -- I would always find it out in the paper, search it out in the paper, and I thought it was very funny. My father was a huge Woody Allen fan, so we were always watching those movies whenever they came on TV or whenever a new one came out. And it was kind of stuff like that, like Little Big Man. You know all those kind of movies that my dad really liked. And Monty Python was another one that I watched when I was probably in high school. So I -- not as far as humor writing went, I didn't really know enough to search that kind of stuff out as a kid or as an adolescent, but, yeah, I really loved all the mass media very funny left-of-center kind of stuff.
Ron Carlson: Exactly, exactly. Erma Bombeck had a way of bringing us inside of really -- you'd have this American family, but really, somebody had spilled something recently, and that -- there's that kind of intimacy here, and you can take it a little further, being the day that it is. And are there things that are not funny that you wouldn't –
Laurie Notaro: Yeah. Oh, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ron Carlson: I don't think we need to talk about them, but I just wondered if you were one of these people that say, "Oh, I can make everything funny."
Laurie Notaro: Well, I -- for example, I mean, there is a piece in there where my little dog gets very sick, you know, and that happened four years ago and it took me that long to be able to write about it. It's not -- there are pieces in that piece, there are portions of it that are supposed to be humorous. All together, though, while it comes up and it hopefully has a very optimistic ending, it's not a funny piece. It’s...yeah --
Ron Carlson: Right, but it's human. There's a lot of counterpoint human feeling in this book. It isn't simply kind of a laugh riot, although there are moments -- and I keep alluding to it and I’m not sure we'll have a chance to get to it in this interview, but the title essay, about her finally raging at those drivers in Eugene, but I wanted to ask you about -- is writing -- is writing humor hard? People ask about humor all the time. It's a question that comes up at panels and festivals and conferences: how do you write humor? As if some people want to insert it in. Do you -- what do you say to that question?
Laurie Notaro: I don't know. I don't know. I have no idea how to teach someone how to -- how to write that. I -- in the first place, I think that humor is very subjective. It is so subjective. And what one person finds hysterical and they're doubled over with spasms and cramps, another person will just look at that and say, "huh, yeah, okay, whatever." So it all depends on where you come from and where you're at and where you've been. That’s all going to determine -- the basis for that -- what you find funny, you know? Like most TV --don't really find too funny. There's some stuff on cable I think is hilarious. But I don't really know how to tell someone. I think that either you -- I wouldn't want to say that you're born with it, because I certainly don't know that to be the case, but I think that maybe some things have to happen in your life. You've got to have a certain perspective and be exposed to things early on in order to see things that way. It's a certain skew, I think.
Ron Carlson: Well, you have got a certain skew and you've got that perspective. It's just a pleasure to talk to you about this very enjoyable book.
Laurie Notaro: Thank you.
Ron Carlson: We've been talking to Laurie Notaro about her book, The Idiot Girl and The Flaming Tantrum of Death. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope you'll join us next time.