Laurie Notaro -
The Potty Mouth at the Table
June 30, 2013
About the Author
Laurie Notaro was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. She packed her bags for Eugene, Oregon, once she realized that since she was past 30, her mother could no longer report her as a teenage runaway. She is currently at work on a plan B (to take effect when her book contract runs out) which consists of options including selling hot dogs at Costco, selling hot dogs from a street cart, selling hot dogs at high-school football games, or being the stop sign holder for road construction crews. She avoids raccoons both day and night and fully expects to be run out of her new hometown after this book is published.
About this Book
"The Potty Mouth at the Table" is Notaro’s latest collection of essays. Consisting of approximately 30 to 40 entries, it is an anthology of rude acts committed by Notaro herself and rude instances she has witnessed. By being painfully honest and often calling herself out on her own audacious acts, Notaro is able to identify misfortunes in individuals and society and alleviate disdain with humor all at the same time.
Extended Interview Videos
Laurie Notaro's website
NARRATOR: "Books & Co." is made possible by the Virginia G. Piper Center for creative writing. Serving writers and readers in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the state of Arizona, and the world.
ALBERTO RIOS: Welcome to "Books & Co." Bienvenidos todos. I'm your host, Alberto Rios, and we're joined today by humorous Laurie Notaro, who will be talking about her newest book, "The Potty Mouth at the Table." Published by Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster. Welcome Laurie.
LAURIE NOTARO: Thank you. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
ALBERTO RIOS: Well, humorist. I've been waiting. What the heck is that? [laughter]
ALBERTO RIOS: It gets you that. That's what it does.
LAURIE NOTARO: Hopefully, hopefully.
ALBERTO RIOS: What do you think humor is? How do you even begin -- I know we're going to talk about the book, but I'm interested, how do you begin to think about humor in an ironically humorous way?
LAURIE NOTARO: Well I think that humor is different things to different people. It's completely subjective. What's funny to one person isn't funny to another person. And I find that out with hate mail I get.
ALBERTO RIOS: There's a down side.
LAURIE NOTARO: If someone expects you to make them laugh and you don't, there is a wrath to be had like no other. Personally I find that humor is typically in my area of expertise, is tragedy plus a day, pretty much.
ALBERTO RIOS: That's a wonderful description. Tragedy plus a day.
LAURIE NOTARO: A little time so you can see it for the gold nugget that lies in a really misfortunate situation.
ALBERTO RIOS: That's assuming we're going to find that gold nugget funny, right?
LAURIE NOTARO: That's -- Sometimes it takes years to expose itself. But usually it's there.
ALBERTO RIOS: You have written humorous books, this is not your first. Maybe you could tell us about how this book has presented itself, how you describe it, how you think about it yourself.
LAURIE NOTARO: I think when I was approaching this book, this is I think my 10th book of either a humorous essays, or a novel in a humorous aspect. And this one I kind of wanted to go back to my very, very beginning. And that was to write very short, very sharp episodic pieces that people could for lack of a better term, finish a piece in the duration of time you were in the bathroom. So the kind -- That ties into potty mouth, even though I did not call myself that, it was bestowed on me by a very renown poet who I will not name. I wanted to make it to the point, funny, sharp, quick, and on to the next one. And basically the focus I took, which is basically to be honest, the focus I take with all my books is the absurdity in the world and almost the rudeness of people and I'm not excluded from that. I'm also quite rude in this book. On occasion.
ALBERTO RIOS: So you are.
LAURIE NOTARO: I am.
ALBERTO RIOS: I'm going to ask you, that actually. One of the first things in a creative writing class you taught was never to confuse the author with the speaker in a book. But in this case I think you pretty much present yourself as being the protagonist as it were, the butt of jokes as it were.
LAURIE NOTARO: I think I'm the heroine.
ALBERTO RIOS: Yeah okay, or the heroine. Well said. OK. And so you put yourself in the middle of all this personally. It's not just a caricature or a character. It's you. Can we jump that way?
LAURIE NOTARO: I would say so. Ask there's a couple of -- It's me, and it's me very raw, and almost -- It's more of my ID honestly than I think it is of me on a one-to-one personal level. There's some pieces in there that are really kind of off the map as far as I just kind of let myself go and take direction from what I really felt deep inside, which I knew wasn't the right thing to say, but I'm also making fun of myself for even thinking of these. I think secretly everyone thinks those things. They get really mad when they get a speeding ticket and they don't think though deserve it, even though they know they're speeding 30 miles over the speed limit.
ALBERTO RIOS: You go further than that. [laughter] And you often put yourself in the middle of quite unflattering situations. I think of the train story. Which is very human, you give us all the variables that could make this as tragic as it is funny, but we're laughing. And that's due to you as the author presenting it that way. But that was a tough one.
LAURIE NOTARO: It was a tough thing.
ALBERTO RIOS: Could you explain it a little?
LAURIE NOTARO: Well, I was actually getting -- I was on a book tour, and this was for the last book, this is two years ago. I ate a rotten falafel, who knew the falafel could ever be rotten? But there is such a thing as a rotten falafel. And I had to be on the train the next morning and back to Eugene, Oregon, where I live. And I got on that train and food poisoning hit me with a baton that was blunt and unforgiving, and very public. And it was a nightmare that you always dread. No one ever wants to throw up in public. No one ever wants to do that. And then have 100 people scream.
ALBERTO RIOS: I'm laughing already. But do go on.
LAURIE NOTARO: I was on a train, but it was like someone had just gotten decapitate on a Greyhound bus. It was that horrible people. I didn't splash anyone but myself, but still, it was the -- The mark was there and it was the worst day in my life. And then -- It was the worst day of my life. It was at that point I thought -- It wasn't until a couple days later when I was out of bed and I had lost 12 pounds, which was awesome in itself, but -- I thought, this is a story that I don't want to tell which means it's a story that I am going to tell.
ALBERTO RIOS: Well, I'm only half joking, we were laughing as we're reading that, but we also clearly know, we register it's horrible. So what is that about us as human beings that we can take it both ways?
LAURIE NOTARO: I think that, yeah, like I said, tragedy plus a day makes something funny. And when there is something horrible, it's such a forbidden thing. It's something you don't ever want to happen to you. I guess when it does happen, you have to -- In order to fully go on with your life, you have to take that perspective on it, that you have to make it funny, otherwise you'll never get back up again. And I think that I enjoy hearing stories of other people. People tell me stories all the time of their really embarrassing moments, because I've opened that door. They tell me because they want me to laugh. And that takes the shame away from it a little bit. So the more funny you can make a horrible thing, the less horrible it is. And that is the best thing about my job.
ALBERTO RIOS: Humor is medicine, or I don't know what word you would want to put into it.
LAURIE NOTARO: Right. Not to be like readers digesty, but it's certainly cheaper than therapy. And I know, because I have a copay of $24.60 every week.
ALBERTO RIOS: You're doing it for us. Okay. You know, as you describe that and you describe -- It takes a little while to get through that. You don't let us off the hook, you were talking about a very short to the point pieces this, is a little longer. My question is really, where do you stop? You haven't, because you're still talking about it. But in the book, how do you know where to stop as a writer?
LAURIE NOTARO: I guess --
ALBERTO RIOS: I don't know that there's an answer to that.
LAURIE NOTARO: I usually -- I always like to bring things back around, and a piece will generally tell me when it's time to stop, or when -- This is one of the things on how I use -- I hate the word process. I hate saying there's a creative method, because there isn't. It's just what works in my head. And I know when I get on the phone two days after I get off a train and say to my sister oh, my god, I threw up in front of a hundred people on a train, it really was just only coffee, but people screamed and people cried, it was horrible. I know that as I tell her and I tell my mom, and I tell my husband, that story evolves. And not evolves in anything different, but it begins to take form. Just almost like a sculpture. I'm playing around with it. And I didn't realize it at first. It was my husband who said that. He said when I hear you tell stories on the phone to your friends Mary, or your friend Jamie, I can see the progress of how you're working through that. And I was like, really? You totally do that. And I realized he was right.
ALBERTO RIOS: That's a wonderful comparison. A sculptor's process.
LAURIE NOTARO: In a way. You've got all this material and you have to figure out how to put it together and make it complete without it running on too long. You've got to cut it off when it's done.
ALBERTO RIOS: You have a lot of things going on with language as well.
LAURIE NOTARO: I do?
ALBERTO RIOS: You do. You do. And you use language in playful ways, I think to leverage us into the directions that you would like us to go. So when you talk about a glass of milk, for example, you go farther and say, the drinky part of the glass of milk. And you know when I read that, I laughed but I got it immediately. I know what you mean. The drinky part -- All right. So you have these little moments where you use language in excess of itself. Just slightly. Just slightly. You move us just slightly toward where you want us to go. And you had a wonderful moment, it's just so simple, but it was about "Antiques Roadshow," where you say, I needed to go, I decided. I had to go. I was going to go! And we almost slide into it with you. Are you aware of doing that when you're working with language?
LAURIE NOTARO: No, and coming from you that's delightful to hear. Thank you so much. But again, that's just me telling the story and kind of -- No. That's just the way that I'm going in that story. So I want -- I -- Every writer wants to make the reader go into their head. I want the reader to know exactly where I'm coming from and where this is going. And you need to feel my frustration and my anxious and my anger and the awfulness of whatever is happening. So I do want to bring them in and hold them really close to say, come with me this is where we are going. I do want to be explicit. But that was the way to tell a story.
ALBERTO RIOS: And you do it -- I think you do it throughout. One thing that made me laugh, there's nothing -- It's not -- these are not big moments. So I think there's elements of subtly in the middle much all the humor, the humor abounds, there's no question, that's what the book is doing, but you have these very -- It's funny within the humor. And things like -- And I was certain to a reasonably certain degree -- Just that double use of "certain," what measure is that? I was certain to a reasonably certain degree. That cracked me up. I thought that was an attention to language that is different from the bigger story being told.
LAURIE NOTARO: I'm glad you didn't think it was a typo.
ALBERTO RIOS: No. I know what you're saying. We've all been guilty -- I know -- Things get past us, but that felt very intentional, and I just wanted to say, I appreciated those moments.
LAURIE NOTARO: I'm very unsure as a person, I am an idiot. I am.
ALBERTO RIOS: You said that in other places, but.
LAURIE NOTARO: I do idiotic things. And it's the monkey in me, I suppose. In this book especially, I've become very honest with myself about the kind of inner -- Sometimes I'm a jerk. Sometimes I am -- I don't think the right things. And I think that explaining that and exposing that is hopefully funny in itself. Because I'm willing to not really willing, but I'm putting it out there and seeing who's going to come along with me.
ALBERTO RIOS: When you say that, though, you're not saying it in a way that makes you any different from anyone else. So in writing, I'm wondering where it is that we fall as readers. We laugh at the funny parts, but we identify with the lead-up which is not the funny part.
LAURIE NOTARO: Right. The lead-up is kind of -- Is prep work. It's building. It's laying the ground work and doing all the prep for the punch line at the end. And that's again a part of trying to put the reader into my head and bringing them along. And I'm trying to be very relatable on that way, because I think everybody -- We don't always admit the kind of inappropriate and sometimes improper things we think. But it's all there, it's all in there and it's moving around, and I don't necessarily want to say that it's okay, but I do want to say that I thought these things too. What about you? [whispering] And an interesting way as I've -- The first book came out in 2002, I think. Previous to that I had been a columnist at the Republic for many years, previous to that I had been at ASU a State Press as a columnist, since 1991. And as I've grown up and become a different sort of writer, and the internet has come -- And social media, I have all these tools that are available to me now that are crazy, I didn't have before. So I can throw something out on Facebook, like a snippet and see how many people relate to that particular thought, or line of reasoning, or just joke. And if it doesn't go over well, I know maybe hang off on that. But when I hit a chord it's awesome to have that tool right there and I can see immediately if it's something that's good or not.
ALBERTO RIOS: We'll talk about Facebook in a moment. I'd like to remind our viewers you're watching "Books & Co.," I'm your host, Alberto Rios, we're joined today by humor essayist, humorist, very funny person, Laurie Notaro, talking about her latest book "The Potty Mouth at the Table." Facebook, you have some interesting things you talk about with regard to new media. And Facebook, you can put things out, but you also have a very funny sequence where you also read what other people are putting in. You're not stalking people or spying on them, but you know what other people are doing, and it's in your life.
LAURIE NOTARO: Yeah.
ALBERTO RIOS: It affects you.
LAURIE NOTARO: Sure. Sure. There are -- As I write in the book there's things that people post on Facebook that are just -- It's like really just fling your dirty underwear out there on me, you know? How much more blatant -- I don't ever want to know a colleague of my husband's has an open marriage. I don't want to know that! I don't want to know that she has what she terms as like bathroom rags instead of toilet paper, because we live in Eugene, it's a hippy kind of thing. So -- People put -- What I mean by that, she actually had rags on the side of her toilet and if --
ALBERTO RIOS: wow.
LAURIE NOTARO: Yeah. Yeah. You know, really.
ALBERTO RIOS: The mind reels.
LAURIE NOTARO: Reels and falls over and passes out. That's just beyond the scope. Yeah. So Facebook is a marvelous tool, but it's a terrible mirror. It's terrifying and wonderful at the same time.
ALBERTO RIOS: Fun house mirror.
LAURIE NOTARO: Yeah.
ALBERTO RIOS: You talk about your husband's colleague and all the different things, more explicitly you talk about family. Your mother, sisters, all that stuff, and one of the things that I remember hearing early on, one of the first admonitions or things that I heard in a creative writing class, and I got it, is the worst thing for a writer is to have your parents still be alive. And that was the idea of your sensor. What can you write, what can you not write? In your case, however, maybe the best thing for you is to have your family still be around you because they seem to be providing you with material, but I don't know how they feel about that. And you talk about that to some extent in the book. Maybe you could address that.
LAURIE NOTARO: You know, in certain ways, everything is pretty much like I said, I've kind of cracked the secret door. There's no skeletons in the closet of my family anymore. There's still a couple that are rattling in there that I -- Nothing terrible, but it's just -- But as the time goes on, I've been doing this for 20 years, so there are certain members of my family who are very used to it and certain members of my family who are getting a little tired of it. But at the same time, those are the same members, my mom has --
ALBERTO RIOS: You're still talking about your mom. Go On.
LAURIE NOTARO: My mother is --
ALBERTO RIOS: Sorry, mom.
LAURIE NOTARO: It's just the way things are. My mother happens to be a wonderful character. And people genuinely love her in these books. And whether she wants to admit it or not, she is people's favorite character. That's some -- The most favorite well-received stuff that I've written is stuff about my mom. And I think that maybe there are times when I took things too far, there's certainly the possibility of that. But I do it from a place of, I would never want another mother, I want the mother that I had. And it's because of my mother that I grew up and I have the perspective that I have. Whether or not she wants to take credit for it.
ALBERTO RIOS: Fair enough.
LAURIE NOTARO: So I want to showcase her in all the glorious things she says and does. Because my mother is very much like every other mother. And she's the hysterical sarcastic New York, Italian, Brooklyn born mother who -- She's hilarious. And she doesn't know how funny she is. And she's hilarious in a good way. And I am never making fun of her.
ALBERTO RIOS: You said you would never want another mother, but apparently your mother might want another daughter and she says you might want to talk about the Linda story. [laughter]
LAURIE NOTARO: Linda is my sister, who is a school teacher, and she got married to like an IRS accountant, and she has a wonderful son, and she is exactly what my mother wanted when she was 22 and got married. My mother didn't want Laurie. So to speak. She wanted Linda. And Linda is -- They talk every night on the phone, and they look exactly alike and they get their nails done at the same place. And my mother would trade me for two Lindas in a heartbeat. And she's said as much. And it's totally fine. I get it.
ALBERTO RIOS: Well, okay. If you're okay, I'm okay.
LAURIE NOTARO: Lots of therapy.
ALBERTO RIOS: You do have your mother and you talk about her growing up in New Jersey?
LAURIE NOTARO: New York in Brooklyn.
ALBERTO RIOS: You grew up here in the Arizona -- In Arizona in the Phoenix metropolitan area. So her accent, if I can be so bold as to guess what you might have sounded like, had to stand out for you.
LAURIE NOTARO: Oh, yeah.
ALBERTO RIOS: Was that a good thing?
LAURIE NOTARO: When we first moved to Arizona, I was 8 or 9 years old and my name was Laurie Notaro. And that's the way I talked. It was just -- I was in third grade and I went to school, and I had friends, and the kids didn't understand a word I was saying. And because I was young, that accent got bred out of me, but my mother still very much has it. Hi, Laurie, it's mom.
ALBERTO RIOS: When she's talking to you, because apparently she seems to threaten not to talk to you sometimes. Which I'm not sure where that comes from, but all right.
LAURIE NOTARO: I think we're going we're in a good place now. I think we're okay.
ALBERTO RIOS: I'm glad. Who makes you laugh? You're always creating this, and in many ways you're like a science fiction writer in that you can't walk down the street and see it in a regular way. You're always looking for what's funny about that walk. Right? You must see that in other authors or other kinds of writing. What do you think about is that?
LAURIE NOTARO: Absolutely. When things make me laugh, it is such -- I don't want to say it's such a gift. But I love to laugh, when something is genuinely funny. My friend Bryan just texted me and I admitted to having a years-long crush on David Brooks. I said if anybody has video of David brooks dancing on a terrace, send to it me on YouTube or something. And he said, oh, David Brooks. Elitist loveliest, palpable yet tart. And I died. I just died. That was so awesome. It was so precise. So I love things that are just -- Get down to the bone and are very funny and very true. And that just really -- That happened five minutes ago.
ALBERTO RIOS: Are we disparaging people here? We're good, right?
LAURIE NOTARO: No, no, I think we're good. I love David Brooks.
ALBERTO RIOS: This is funny stuff. I'm wondering as you sit down to write, what do you do? I mean, there is the -- There is the business of getting something on the page, and that's not as funny as it might seem to the world, right? That's work.
LAURIE NOTARO: It's like a colonoscopy. It is not funny at all. I hate working. I hate working. I hate writing. I mean, I love it in when it is in this form, because it's done. And I am not thinking oh, I have enough in the bank to last me for two more mortgage payment and I've got to get this book done so I can get paid. That kind of stress I could really do without, but that's just part of the game, that's the way it goes. To sit down and write sometimes oh, it's just terrible. Other times I really know where I'm going with the story and that's when I know a piece is going to be good. I can turn something bad into good with enough work I think, but I know when I've hit something that I'm really going to like. It just flows and it's out there and it's good and I don't have to work too much on it.
ALBERTO RIOS: There is the old adage that no one -- Everyone wants to have written a book but no one wants to write one. So you're describing that phenomenon. What is your writing process? As humorist, it all comes in such short, clean bursts. Very happy thing. And you're describing this drudgery. What is your day like, or how often do you write, or how does that work for you?
LAURIE NOTARO: Yeah, it's a miserable process. It is just torture. And right now I'm not -- I'm working, I'm working in my head. I'm working on another book, a novel, and I'm trying to put that narrative together. I'm trying to get the art down, and that's all in my head. I'm not writing anything down per se, and I will once I get home. I'll do an outline. But I'm thinking. So -- And I think if -- When you are a writer and you're collecting material you're always having to kind of massage things in your head. And thinking, this is funny but this might be a better word. Or you hear something, like something crazy, like what my friend Brian texted me, or writing something down on a paper, or a funny line, or telling someone, I'm going to steal that! It's a collection process at first, and when I sit down to do it, that means I'm usually about three weeks away from my deadline, and things are getting kind of hairy, and then I just work all day. I start at 7 o'clock in the morning when I'm on a deadline and work until maybe 11 o'clock at night until I just can't do it anymore. Or I'm just getting sick from the computer screen, because that happens. But it's better for me to work in burst and working at the newspaper as I did, and I was responsible for --
ALBERTO RIOS: that's an interesting connection. Newspaper deadlines.
LAURIE NOTARO: Yeah. When I was working for "A.Z. Central" and "Arizona Republic," I had a column due a day. And sometimes I had two columns due a day. So I had seven columns a week which meant I had to become a really fast writer. And there was no room for rewriting, going back and fixing things. Had you to get it right the first time around. So I think that kind of education as working for the newspaper and being a journalist in that aspect, really benefited me to write stuff like this. And to get things done pretty fast.
ALBERTO RIOS: Put it into your muscles.
LAURIE NOTARO: I suppose so.
ALBERTO RIOS: Enough columns to be the Parthenon. Do you miss journalism?
LAURIE NOTARO: I do. I do. I'm still writing for the Register-Guard up in Eugene, because I love it. And there are stories that I find that I just want to cover because I want someone to cover them. And the pay is terrible. The pay is awful. Sometimes I'll spend a week on these stories. But I love going back to doing features, and things like that. And I don't write humor for the Register-Guard, I write features. So I enjoy doing that, and I'm also doing stuff for new times here, because I miss Arizona. And I still like to be plugged in in that way. So I write on their blog and sometimes for the actual magazine.
ALBERTO RIOS: We're glad your voice is still with us.
LAURIE NOTARO: Thank you.
ALBERTO RIOS: Thank you for joining us today.
LAURIE NOTARO: Oh, thank you so much.
ALBERTO RIOS: We've been talking with Laurie Notaro today about her book, "The Potty Mouth at the Table." You've been watching "Books & Co.," I'm your host, Alberto Rios. And please join us again next time when we'll be bringing you another good book.
ALBERTO RIOS: Laurie.
LAURIE NOTARO: Thank you.
ALBERTO RIOS: Thank you.
NARRATOR: "Books & Co." is made possible by the Virginia G. Piper Center for creative writing. Serving writers and readers in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the state of Arizona, and the world.