Laurie Notaro on Enter Pirates, the Magic of Not Tidying Up, and Women Lost to History

"Hello, it's Laurie. I'm so sorry!"

Laurie Notaro's on a beach on the Oregon coast. The bestselling author and humorist whose Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club is all but required reading for 20-somethings explains that a very rousing game of phone tag was the result of one distracting and delicious chicken fried steak (with gravy on it) and also her ringer wasn't on. She's taking what she describes laughingly as her "annual three-day vacation." 

It's a break that's well-deserved. Notaro recently released a new e-book, Enter Pirates, a collection of her columns from 1990 to 1999. She's coming to Phoenix, where she found success as a writer before decamping to Eugene, Oregon, and is set to read a piece at New Times' September 30 edition of Bar Flies at Crescent Ballroom (an event that, full disclosure, the author of this piece is also part of) and to teach a now sold-out class on humor writing at Changing Hands Bookstore. Her historical fiction novel, Her Horses Invariably Galloped, is slated for release in spring 2016. And she's in the midst of finishing up a book that's something of a packrat's response to Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

While that project is decidedly current, Enter Pirates and Her Horses share a through-line of looking back. 

After running an e-book special through Amazon, iTunes, and other platforms on Idiot Girls Action-Adventure Club earlier this summer, the 2002 book crept back up the New York Times' bestseller list nearly 15 years after its release. It was, in her words, crazy. "So that led me to believe, that yeah, people — even though I’ve grown and they’ve grown — still wanna hear me talk about having puke in my hair," she laughs. The time seemed right to revisit other older material, material that, luckily enough, had resurfaced a few years back.

"When I was writing all this stuff, like when I started at State Press, we didn’t have email," she says, describing green-screen computers at the ASU newspaper's basement office space in Tempe. "I would sit at work and I would write my columns, and I was too lazy to put them on a floppy so they were all just kind of lost after I left the State Press."

She remembers having hard copies at one point, but they were who-knows-where after a series of moves and a flood or two. It wasn't until about seven years ago when Notaro's grandmother died that Notaro's sister discovered a Giorgio Armani bag filled with those columns. "I don’t know where nana got this bag," Notaro says, "but it was crazy and it was stuffed full of all my State Press stuff, the stuff that i wrote for the Republic, some of the stuff that I wrote for Planet, which was a magazine I started in 1994. She had all this stuff that I had thought was lost."

Reading through her old work was pleasantly surprising, she says. So she decided to self-release a digital-only book compiling a selection of her favorite pieces, including personal stories about the trauma of having her phone line disconnected, being mistaken for a lesbian in San Francisco, convincing children she was a witch, and other cocktail-fueled misadventures. Reliving them came with a few surprises. "I went on spring break? Are you kidding me?" she says. "It was kind of like when you die and your life flashes before your eyes."

Perhaps a bit less debaucherous are the stories of three American women pilots in the 1920s that she researched in writing Her Horses Invariably Galloped. Notaro's interest in these non-Amelia Earhart types featured in the book has an origin story rooted in the evil of Tivo, of all things.

"I would tape Housewives of New Jersey, Atlanta, and Beverly Hills, and I’d use them as my workout TV because it's kind of like eating M&Ms while you’re working out," she says. "And time went by really fast."

One day, Notaro went to watch Real Housewives of New Jersey and things went amiss. "Typical Tivo, it was just taping what it wanted to tape and not taping what I asked it to tape. So I think I’m gonna see Teresa Giudice and there is some BBC-looking program called Vanishing instead."

Unmotivated to search for what she actually wanted to watch, she ended up settling on the show and became fascinated with its subjects. "It was about three female pilots who went missing over the Atlantic — pre-Amelia Earhart in making the trans-atlantic attempt. I thought: How could this be? How could we not have known about these women? We were taught that Amelia Earhart went and made the flight and that was it. But that wasn’t the case."

She began researching the women and became engrossed in the topic. "It took me three editors and two publishing companies for someone to let me write this story," she says. "People were really doubtful I could do it."

In crafting the novel, which will come out in March of 2016, Notaro dug up books by women of the 1920s that also have been lost in history. Stella Gibbons, Margaret Halsey, and Anita Loos are just a few writers whose works she read (and loved). 

Now that Notaro's digitally released those '90s columns, she's toying with the idea of re-introducing the works of forgotten '20s women writers. "As I was looking through women writers in that period, I found so many awesome books that have been lost for ages," she says. "And I thought: God, wouldn’t it be great to bring a lot of these American women writers back?"

She references England's Persephone Books as a model for the potential project. It resurrected the works of Gibbons. "They’ve just dug up all of their old, English lady writers that they call 'mid-brow,' which i think is hilarious. It’s not lowbrow, it’s not highbrow, it’s mid-brow. And Stella Gibbons is a great example of that."

The books Notaro's amassed while learning the vernacular of her roaring '20s aviatrices are just the sort of things that have inspired her narrative-driven antidote to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the bestseller, author Kondo encourages readers to toss out items that don't inspire joy. That includes books, especially unread ones. 

Notaro's reaction was to dig up books that she'd been meaning to read and do just that. "There are some really good aspects of being a hoarder," Notaro says, jokingly addressing Kondo. "So shut up, lady. I’ll throw away my old shoes, but I’m not going to throw away my books. And I think you’re completely insane."

Slated for release in July of 2016, the book marks a return to humor writing for Notaro, and she hopes to convince her publisher to use the title Domestic Terrorism. "My book is not really an answer to her book, but I think there is something to be said for being kind of messy," she says. "It’s basically how to clean a house in 10 minutes, but it’s very narrative."

What stories, exactly? "I once set my house on fire making dog treats and I had to paint my entire house because of smoke damage — those kinds of things."

Laurie Notaro performs at New Times' Bar Flies at Crescent Ballroom on September 30. Tickets are $10 and available through Ticketfly. 

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski