Laurie Notaro accidentally set her dog on fire.
It was Fourth of July weekend, she explains, and everyone was outside lighting sparklers in the backyard of her Eugene, Oregon, home. Maeby, the family dog who has no fear of firecrackers, was sniffing around when she was suddenly aglow.
"We put her right out. It didn't hurt her, but she smelled smoky for a bit," Notaro says, laughing. "My husband is deeply affected by it; he keeps bringing it up. But she didn't even know! It's fine."
It's the kind of story that, had it happened this time last year, would have been right at home in Notaro's newest book.
Housebroken: Admissions of an Untidy Life is a collection of essays about domestic misadventures and the realities of keeping house, the latest release in a long list of best-selling, relatable memoirs from Notaro, including The Idiot Girl's Action-Adventure Club and the New York Times bestseller It Looked Different on the Model.
"I'm not really a very good housekeeper," she says. "It is what it is. I work a lot, I haven't cleaned my house in five years, and it looks like a hobo lives here, minus the shopping cart. Someday I will clean it if I get a break, but for right now, this is how I work."
A former columnist for the Arizona Republic (and occasional contributor to New Times), Notaro has spent her life writing — and writing mostly about herself. Housebroken loosely chronicles life in Eugene, from failed Twinkie-making experiments to having "the fat talk" at the doctor's office to leaving the oven on with homemade dog treats inside. She shares recipes for gravy that would make any nonna proud and memories of her dumpster-diving grandfather and stories searching for the perfect Phoenix home, decades before.
And it's not giving anything away to say that for Notaro, Phoenix is still very much home. She returns to the Valley this week for not one, but three events: a book-signing for Housebroken on Tuesday, July 12, at the Changing Hands location in Tempe; a live reading as part of Bar Flies, the New Times storytelling event at Valley Bar in downtown Phoenix on Thursday, July 14; and a humor workshop, "Humor 101 + Burritos," on Saturday, July 16, at Changing Hands at The Newton in central Phoenix.
New Times caught up with Notaro via phone to talk about the difference between being sentimental and being a hoarder, whether "oversharing" is over, and why she'd like to fight Marie Kondo.
New Times: Early on in Housebroken you refer to “the Tidy book.” Is that Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Did that inspire you to write a response about what it’s really like to maintain a home?
Notaro: I wanted to do a spin-off, like a parody on old Victorian house manuals, and I spent a year collecting all these old manuals, where basically a cure for everything was chloroform and giving arsenic. "Here, have a spoonful of lye!" There were so many things that were in there and I wrote a first draft of it, and I couldn't get it to work. Unless you really knew those household manuals, it was kind of falling flat. My editor sent me — in preparation for that book — the Marie Kondo book. I was the only person in the world who hadn't heard of it. I started reading it but put it down halfway through, and then I was like no, I really need to finish this book because it might give me inspiration to put my book in a different direction. And it did.
She's a crackpot! You have no idea what damage she's actually done to my life. I did take one piece of advice from her and that was "throw away all your paperwork" — it's all available online. So I did. I shredded basically my entire office, except for manuscripts. Twice. And I threw away all my manuals for appliances and things like that. In subsequent weeks, I have needed to get the real-sale figures for my books which, they're not online, and also I won some money in a settlement from Whirlpool for front-loading washers, but I threw the manual away so I don't know what model I have and don't know how to find it. So, Marie Kondo actually owes me money. It was bad advice; I think I'd rather take advice from the guy who lives in the bushes in my alley.
Well, the guy in the bushes doesn't have a lot of possessions, so maybe he's doing something right?
Exactly. He's pared down; he can really tell me what's important and what's not. I hate Marie Kondo. I'd like to spar with her; I'd like to box her. Only I think I'd bite her.
What's the difference between being messy and being a slob, or being sentimental versus being a hoarder? You address both in the book.
My grandmother was entirely unsentimental. When we moved from New York to Phoenix, she threw away her wedding dress — this was like in the '70s and she got married in the '30s. She threw away all these newspapers like, "Man Lands on Moon" and "JFK Assassinated." My grandfather didn't realize, until he got to Arizona and unpacked his stuff, [that] all his stuff was gone [laughs].
I don't condone hoarding, but sometimes in my level of experience I've found that as soon as you throw something away you're probably going to need it. My Preppy Handbook when I was in high school, I threw it away when I got into punk rock. I was like, "I am never going to need this again." But now, I'm in my 50s and I was like "What was the name of that espadrille?" So I had to go and buy that Preppy Handbook again online, and now it's very expensive.
I think the line is very thin between being hoarding and being sentimental, but if you don't have to throw a tarp over a pile of possessions [laughs] or you can look around the room and say yeah, I'm not in danger of anything falling on me or crushing me to death, then you're just a collector. If you're not in mortal danger of your possessions, then you're just a happy person who likes things.
A way to keep yourself in check is to invite people over every two weeks for dinner, and then you have to clean your house. The problem with that is that all the excess stuff from all the other rooms ends up in my office, but in five years' time I will address that situation.
Which makes sense, because you've had a very busy year. You self-released Enter Pirates [a collection of a decade's worth of columns, from 1990 to 1999] last year, and now Housebroken is coming out. A third book, Crossing the Horizon [a tale of the non-Amelia Earhart women who raced to fly across the Atlantic in the 1920s], comes out this fall and it's totally different — a historical novel. Was it challenging to work on all of them at the same time?
Enter Pirates actually took a lot of work. I had to type all the stuff back in again and then format it myself. So I did that book and then I finished Housebroken, and Crossing was kind of waiting in the wings — that had been done since 2014, but I was still working on it. We were still working on edits and I was doing some re-writes and formatting and production and things like that. I was working on all three at one time and working on research for my next book, so it's been a really busy year. And then I recorded an audiobook for Housebroken which I'd never done before, and that was a massive pain in the ass.
Oh my God. If you've ever talked straight for eight hours, you want to punch yourself in the face when you're done, but you also have a really roaring headache and you start to really hate children. [laughs] I almost stabbed my husband.
These are three very different books about three very different aspects of your life. Was there one you liked more than the others, or is it like you can't choose between children?
[laughs] No, no, no, no. It's not a Sophie's Choice for me at all — there's a definite favorite. You know, I will always love humor. It will always be my first husband. That's what I've been doing the longest; I've been doing it for 30 years now. I like doing it, but it's hard. And sometimes I just don't feel like being very funny and I get stuck on a punch line and it might take me days to get back to that place. While I like humor, it's the most difficult thing that I do.
But with Crossing, I hadn't been — I do some reporting every now and then for the local paper just because I like it, but I really miss that aspect of my life. I really miss that aspect of writing. I get bored with myself. I get bored with talking about myself again and again and again and again. I did two novels before, they were very whimsical, [very] "women's section." I tried my hand at that and I really enjoyed it, but you know as a reporter, you keep your eye out for a story that was really intriguing, and I found this one about women's aviation. My God, once that got a hold of me it would not let go. That became my main focus.
I researched it for three or four years, and started it in January and I finished writing it in May. When I finished writing it, it was a 600-page book. I know that story inside and out, and that was so ... I couldn't wait to work on it every single day. There was never a time when I got stuck, and I wanted so badly to bring these women back to life and hopefully get them the recognition they deserve.
Did that inspire what's coming next for you?
Absolutely. When you're done with a book, you're done: you go out to dinner, you celebrate, you feel like you just got your taxes done and you got a huge refund. But when I was finished with Crossing, I just kind of sat there and I was like, "I don't want to be done with this." I cried a little because I was saying goodbye to these women, but the story was done. I really wanted to find something that was just as compelling, and I had this idea — because I grew up in Phoenix — I had this idea about a figure in Phoenix that I wanted to write about, so that's the book that I'm working on now.
I like what you said about coming back to reporting, because I like to think "once a reporter, always a reporter." But you're known for memoirs—
I was reading a New York Times article in which the author was saying that she feels really alone, even though people — her readers — think they know her very well through her writing. You're not shy in your writing, and it seems like nothing is off limits. Do you ever feel that same way?
I am pretty open with stuff, especially if people follow me on Facebook; they kind of know what I'm doing day-to-day. But very rarely do you know a person 100 percent. I let people know what I want them to know — the funny things. But when it came to my husband having a brain tumor [laughs] I was gonna kinda shut that down a little bit. Eventually, funny things started happening with my husband's brain tumor and I started writing about that a little bit, and the outpouring was amazing. It kind of shocked me. People cared. They really did care.
The parts of my life that I'm able to share with people, I'm really happy to because it washes the shame off me immediately. I transformed it into a funny thing instead of a horrifying thing, and that's really cathartic for me. I think people understand that I'm not a static figure that only comes to life when they're reading a book. My readers are generally really, really nice. I love meeting them and talking to them, and if they feel like I'm a friend then that's awesome. They're usually just like me, and that makes for instant friendships — like insta-pudding.
Has our sharing culture — from storytelling nights to online personal essays and blogs to deeply TMI Facebook statuses — changed your approach to writing a memoir? Has it changed society's approach to reading them?
I still maintain the same perspective. I'm a very insular writer, and I don't really read other people who do the same thing that I do. I'm not a big memoir person — I mean I write it, but it's just not my thing. I like historical fiction. [laughs] But I want to post on Facebook every day like, you guys are saying too much. And sometimes the things that you post, you may think they're funny but you just put your kid in danger — or you set your dog on fire.
Here's the thing: When this humorous first-person essay [movement] got started, around the time Idiot Girls came out in 2002, since then we've had 14 years of people coming out with humorous essays. There are some of us who were there at the very beginning and there were others who came afterward, especially with the advent of the Internet, and there's always a challenge. You need a new voice. You need to present new material. You need to stand out from the crowd. And I think people are challenged to do that, to make their own mark — however, I'm a staunch believer that if you need a good story you don't need a sex scene and you don't need to air your filthy, dirty laundry. I have a lot of laundry that's really dirty that I have not aired! It's really good material, but that's just like, that is going too far. I think if you have a really good story you don't need that stuff.
I taught a class online and I also teach a class at Changing Hands, and sometimes I have to tell students, go back a little bit, we don't want to talk about that right now. You will regret it later on. I know that from experience. Curb that oversharing by just finding good material and writing a good story. I am a vast proponent of yes, I do believe we are oversharing. People are competitive and are awful, terrible creatures who want to outdo one another — and people will go to that level when they have nothing better to say.
You're also teaching a workshop on humor writing at Changing Hands this week. What's your number-one rule when it comes to humor writing? What do you wish people knew?
I wish they knew that it's really not that difficult, you just need a certain perspective on it. I didn't use to think that you could teach humor; I thought either you were kind of funny or you weren't — and it certainly helps to have a twisted sense of things. But, if you have an imagination and you're able to kind of see things in a different light, I think that you can accomplish that. Humor basically is truth twisted into a different form than its original form. A punch line is something where you take one thing and twist it a little bit, and then you give it a new shape but it still retains some of the old shape — it's still recognizable. And I know that sounds really kind of ... abstract ... but if you really study punchlines, that's what it is. I call it ladder thinking: You go from one thought to the next thought to the next thought, and you'll reach that punch line where it’s not obvious, but it's relatable.
If you can even just study how comedy — John Mulaney has a really good way of twisting things; so does Daniel Tosh. He does it like a crank. He does one crank and he'll make a punch line and he'll do another crank — on the same joke — make a different punch line that's a little bit farther out. He'll do it three or four times until it’s so far out that there's like, three people in the audience that are left laughing, but that's gold. If you can get three turns out of one joke, holy shit! That's brilliant.
Housebroken ends with an essay that's a letter to your 25-year-old self. What advice do you have for other 25-year-old journalists and writers today?
This is what I tell my nephew all the time: If you have to spend eight hours a day working at something or 17 hours a day working at something, it better be something that you love. When I was a reporter starting out, I was really, really poor. When we started Planet, I think I was making $200 a week. I didn't make any decent money until I was like 35 years old, so we were super, super poor — but I was doing what I loved. I think if you stick with it long enough and you do a good job and you work your ass off, good things happen. Be tenacious. Be compassionate, be honest, and don't make shit up.
Laurie Notaro will read from and sign copies of Housebroken: Admissions of an Untidy Life on Tuesday, July 12, at Changing Hands, 6428 South McClintock Drive in Tempe. Seating begins at 6:30 p.m.; reading starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $17 and includes one paperback copy of Housebroken and entry for two. Individual copies of Housebroken are available for $17 each.
From 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 16, Notaro will host a humor writing workshop, "Humor 101 + Burritos" at the Changing Hands location in Phoenix, 300 West Camelback Road. The $35 sign-up fee includes admission into the workshop only; the post-event meal at Rosita's Place — where Notaro says she religiously orders a "bean and cheese burrito with mole sauce on the side" — is not included in the ticket price. For tickets to either event and other details, visit www.changinghands.com.
Notaro will read alongside Kathy Cano-Murillo, Robrt Pela, Amy Silverman, and Brian Smith during this month's installment of New Times' Bar Flies storytelling show at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 14, at Valley Bar, 130 North Central Avenue. Tickets are $5 at www.valleybarphx.com.