I love Dear Mr. You. The idea for quarterlane may have stemmed from my love for Dear Mr. You. I simply want everyone to read it. And I will admit that Dear Mr. You completely surprised me. Here’s a secret: sometimes when I am not fully committed to a book, if I’ve made a snap judgment based on nothing, I will listen to the audiobook on my runs. It’s multi-tasking at its best– getting a run in and hearing a story all in one go.
I first listened to Dear Mr. You last fall while I was training for the New York City Marathon. I was at the peak of training and I knew the book would help me pass the time and the miles. I expected to enjoy it, but I didn’t expect much else. Dear Mr. You tipped me over. I listened to every essay on these runs, often rewinding to hear one bit over again. At night, I would reread the best parts from the book and I even bought two copies to save for my daughters to read when they are older. Not because I’m a super-fan (though I am sure I sound that way), but because this book is important. It is raw. It is honest. It is healing and it is life affirming – every topsy-turvy chaotic and beautiful bit of it.
I was able to ask Mary-Louise Parker a few questions about Dear Mr. You for The Edit — the book, her writing process and her life as a writer. Read on below and then please read her stunning book.
EL: Each essay stands alone as a beautiful vignette, yet each are linked by such a linear thread and each essay builds beautifully on the former – what was your writing process for the book? Did you write each essay chronologically or did you skip around a bit? And what was the genesis of the book – did these essays come from your journals? How did the idea for the book begin – what was that first seed of inspiration?
MLP: Thank you! The form itself really found me, in a way. When I was writing for Esquire one of my assignments was to write a general piece about men. It seemed a bit broad as a topic, to say the least, but I remember hanging up with my editor and almost without a pause I began writing what is now the invocation to my book, which begins “Dear Mr. You.” It just sort of came sailing out of me, and was in a letter format, with that direct address. I believe for that piece it began “Dear you to whom it may concern” or something like that. For whatever reason addressing the gender directly, from my little internal memory podium, allowed me to mash up my deep gratitude (the ones who comforted and loved me, who stood up for me) alongside the somewhat less poetic (that guy at the concession stand), the carnal (thank you for the tour of the elevator cage, the alley), and still wind up at the one I am most informed by—and who begins and concludes any discussion of men or life whatsoever—and that is my father.
EL: The writing and use of language in DMY is so symbolic and beautiful, I would imagine you have been writing for a very long time – that this has been a long held passion. When did you first realize you were a writer and has writing been something always in the background, a side of you that was perhaps more personal than public? And if so, what was it like to publish this book – to put it out in the public space?
MLP: Thank you again! I have always been a writer. I would say it’s acting that made me so observant of others, but really that quality may be what led me to acting—it certainly helps with my writing, though. I was usually the quiet one in the corner, so I was able to absorb and remember a lot. I’m a big daydreamer and my imagination is probably what best fuels my writing—my need to write. Now that I’m about to be 52 years old I don’t feel like I have to apologize for being such a daydreamer anymore. Maybe its more charming on an older lady and people don’t automatically assume you’re aloof or on narcotics. In many ways I’m more suited to writing than acting because it’s solitary and you have more control over the final product.
I have been so grateful to people who have picked up my book and given it a chance, even when they may have been expecting another book entirely. I’ve tried to show my thanks to many readers by writing and sending them actual letters written on paper. People feel more appreciated when you take the time to actually find a pen and lick a stamp, and I get a tiny thrill when I’ve given someone that little surprise. If you stop and think for a moment, you’ll generally come across someone in your life who is deserving of and who would deeply appreciate that gesture. When someone tells me my book inspired them to write to someone that mattered, I’m overjoyed—the jumping-up-and-down kind of overjoyed.
EL: From your use of language, I know you are a voracious reader! What is on your bedside table right now? What is your favorite “beach read” or “guilty pleasure”?
MLP: I would say generally I don’t feel guilty about pleasure reading if it’s legal and no one suffers as a result, but when I get the chance to read I usually go for poetry.
At the moment I’m reading the novel All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, John Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie, and working my way through all of James Galvin’s poetry. I also just finished Frank O’Hara’s Lunch. On one nightstand are books by Jim Harrison, Don Chiasson, Mark Strand (which is always there), Joy Williams, Larry Levis, and some Karl Knausguard that I pick up when I’m feeling it.
On my other nightstand are some issues of Tin House, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, Kevin Young’s Blue Laws, Lynda Barry’s The World According to Marlys, a play my son started writing, and a journal that my kids and I wrote the last time we were in Africa. I try to clean off my nightstands because I’m pretty tidy, compulsively so actually, but they end up stacked with books that threaten to topple in about three days. Sometimes I’ll get like every Sharon Olds book out before I go to sleep and put them by my bed, usually when I’m supposed to be reading something else, but it makes me happy to make those little mountains of books and start digging through them.