Tough cookie: Author Laurie Notaro.
Kevin Scanlon

Revenge of the Idiot Girl

The cocktail waiter at Barmouche is staring longingly out the window at Laurie Notaro. "Hey, man," he says to me. "That's Laurie Notaro, huh?"

I assure him that it is. "Wow," he says. "I love Laurie Notaro. I read her all the time. She's absolutely the best. Hey, how come she's being photographed on our patio?"

I explain that Laurie is having her picture taken because she's agreed to be interviewed in my new column. This is the cocktail waiter's cue to ask my name and then tell me how much he loves my work, too, and that he reads me all the time.

Instead, he says, "Wow, you're really lucky you get to interview her. Okay, well, let me know if you want another scotch!" And he's gone.

All of a sudden, I desperately want another scotch. But Laurie is done being photographed and, after autographing a copy of her new book, The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club, for our photographer, she joins me. She orders a whiskey, a drink befitting the tough-cookie persona she's made famous in local publications — first Java, then the Arizona Republic, which ran her first-person humor essays and then abruptly canceled her column weeks before Idiot Girls turned up as the surprise hit of the season. (Her revenge: Walking out on the Republic last week, sans notice.)

After a few sips of Jack Daniel's, Laurie switches to iced tea, and — as our waiter gazes adoringly from nearby — I corner her about her newest success.

New Times: I shouldn't even be talking to you. Your book is on The New York Times Bestseller List and mine is not.

Laurie Notaro: I'm sorry! But I can't take any credit for the success of my book. We had a really strong cover, and it's the cover that's selling this book.

NT: Oh, come on. Your book debuted at Number 12! You're ahead of fucking Gore Vidal!

Notaro: But you know that for the past week Gore Vidal has done nothing but lay on his couch, shaking his head, going "Who the fuck is Laurie Notaro?!"

NT: Well, congratulations. So how has your life changed since you made the big list?

Notaro: Well, this week I haven't needed therapy, which is different from every other week of the past 36 years of my life. It's very surreal. I've been trying to get this book published for 10 years.

NT: Ten years?

Notaro: I sent that book to every publisher in the U.S., and I have the rejection notices to prove it. I even got a rejection notice from Villard, who eventually published it. No one wanted anything to do with my book. Finally, one publisher said, "We'd be interested in your essays as a novel." So I spent a year rewriting my book of essays into a novel. Then we sent that out and still no one wanted it. Finally, I just said, "Screw it! I know I can sell this book, and if I have to publish it myself, I will." I finally got an agent, and we sent the book out to 10 more publishers, and they all received it on the day of the big anthrax scare. So no one was opening mail. This is how my life goes. Then Random House bought it. But I wouldn't have traded those 10 years for an overnight book deal, because I learned so much. There was a sense of accomplishment, and I don't think there's a writer out there who's more appreciative than I am.

NT: I don't get it: You wrote what had to be the most popular column in the Arizona Republic, and they fired you. What's up with that?

Notaro: At the time, I tried to make sense out of it, but it was so frustrating. I worked so hard for the Republic. They hired me to do a job, I did the job, I brought in the readers that they wanted, and I was proud of the work I did. And one day they told me, "Your column no longer fits our format." When I questioned that, one of the editors said, "Well, if I ever see you on the Today show promoting your book, then I'll know we made a mistake."

NT: So when do you do the Today show?

Notaro: (Laughs.) The guys at the Republic know that the book is on the [New York Times Bestseller] List, and no one's said anything. Nor did I expect them to. But this is so typical of my life: A thing I never thought would ever happen to me happens — getting my name on this big-deal list — but in Phoenix, Arizona, my column gets canceled. So it's all very weird to me. It makes me sad, because I loved my job. I was the luckiest girl in the world to do what I did: I produced seven columns a week, and I worked my ass off. That's one of my biggest accomplishments.

NT: Your life can't really be as messed up as you make it sound in print.

Notaro: It is! You've sat here and listened to me talk about how screwed up my life is. But it's screwed up in a normal way, in the way that everyone else's life is screwed up, except I had a deadline every week. So I'd have something dumb happen to me, but it would be my column idea that week.

NT: On the other hand, don't you hate it when people ask, "Did that really happen to you, or did you make it up?"

Notaro: The thing is that I'm the worst fiction writer in the world. I can't make up a story to save my life. I don't even know what a story arc is! People ask my mother, "Did those things really happen to Laurie?" And my mother says, "Oh, she exaggerates to make it funnier." No I don't! I have to be able to say what really happened to me. I can't make this stuff up. Anyway, if there's no truth in it, then it's not funny.

NT: I'm guessing that people get pissed off when you write about them. And when you don't.

Notaro: Well, there are people I know who say stupid things like, "Susan Smith had an abortion, but you can't put that in your column!" Like I'm writing about people's abortions in my column. Get real. Then there's this guy I know who, every time I see him, says, "So, you gonna write about me?" Every five minutes! I want to tell him, "Yeah, if you do something funny, something other people can relate to, maybe." But he never does.

NT: Do you get propositioned more often now that you're a famous writer?

Notaro: Well, I can tell that our waiter totally has the hots for me. Every time I take a sip of tea, he refills my glass. Men are falling all over me. I can't wait to meet Benicio del Toro. He's mine!

NT: Okay, so you write about doing all these loser things, like getting shitfaced and throwing up, and having lousy credit. In your stories, you're always wearing dirty clothes and smelling bad. But you're always very put together and pleasant-smelling when I see you.

Notaro: You're wrong! I'm a total dork. I am! I have not shaved my legs all week; my boots are filthy; and my husband had to throw this dress into the dryer with a Downy sheet before I could wear it because it smells like cat pee. I'm always falling down. Food is always falling out of my mouth. That's just who I am.

NT: Do you really get fired all the time?

Notaro: I cannot remember the last time I was able to quit a job. I've been fired from every single job I've ever had. However, I am going to change that tomorrow, because my column has been canceled by the Republic, and when I asked for a two-week unpaid leave of absence to go on my book tour, they said no. Then they told me that if I stayed, my job would switch from columnist to data entry clerk. I don't know how to do HTML or post Web pages. So tomorrow I'm doing Pat McMahon's TV show, and then I'm going to e-mail my boss and tell them I'm not coming in. Ever.

NT: Then what?

Notaro: The book tour lasts all of August, and then I have to send in my second book, Autobiography of a Fat Bride, which is already written. It's a much better book than my first one. Then I have to start on my third book, which Random House has an option on. The third book I'm calling I Love Everyone, and it's gonna be all about my life in the work force.

NT: Your Republic editors are going to love that. So, tell me the truth: Is having a best seller the perfect revenge?

Notaro: I don't think of it as revenge, but it's an accomplishment that proves a lot of people wrong. Because honestly, ever since I was in college, I've had to prove to people who thought I sucked that I don't suck. Every publication I've worked at, I've had to fight for my stuff. I'm never done proving myself, no matter how big my audience is or how big my book deal is. Maybe now I'll get a break from fighting for a little bit. Maybe just for a little bit I can take it easy and say, "Gimme a break, all right? For maybe 10 minutes, can I have a break? Would that be cool with you?" Because apparently someone out there doesn't think that I suck, and I can prove it. It's in the Sunday New York Times.


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